Sometimes playoff games are won or lost on great moments, sometimes heroes will their teams to victory. In the Guardians’ 15-inning, 1-0 marathon win over the Rays, I’d say the day goes to the heroes.
Triston McKenzie pitched six shutout innings in his first-career postseason start, striking out eight and only walking two with two hits.
Sam Hentges pitched three innings of relief with six strikeouts of his own, cementing himself as the next great starter-turned-reliever.
José Ramírez struggled at the plate, but made an incredible throw at third base that prevented the Rays from scoring in the top of the 12th. On that same play, Josh Naylor made an equally incredible scoop to finish the play.
Oscar Gonzalez played the ultimate hero, walking off the Rays and carrying the Guardians to the ALDS with a monster home run in the bottom of the 15th.
Gonzalez, the kid who was briefly released in the offseason and would probably have been picked away in the Rule 5 Draft if it happened, forever entrenched himself in Cleveland baseball lore tonight. And he did it by hitting a homer off of a former Cleveland hero, Corey Kluber.
Gonzalez only needed to see two Kluber cutters to find one he liked. He took a meatball of a pitch over the heart of the plate and sent it 410 feet into the bleachers. If you watched all 15 innings of this one, you might not be surprised to know it was the hardest and farthest hit ball of the game. It was one of only five balls hit over 100 mph, two of which came from Myles Straw and Austin Hedges.
It was a weird one, OK?
For 14 and a half innings, the Rays and Guardians went back and forth with nothing to show for it, as each team burned through eight pitchers and fans through multiple beers. There were a few baserunners, but hardly anything that put pressure on the other team’s pitching staff. The lone exception was in the bottom of the sixth when three straight walks by the Rays loaded the bases. But, with no outs on the board, Ramírez had an awful at-bat, struck out, and Naylor grounded into an inning-ending double play.
That would be the last time the Guardians had a runner past first base until Gonzalez’s home run.
Recency bias be damned, this was arguably the worst the Guardians offense looked all season. Nineteen strikeouts is a gaudy number — even for 15 innings of baseball — but even more surprising is where they came from. Andrés Giménez had the worst game of his life, going 0-for-5 with five strikeouts. Amed Rosario whiffed three times, Naylor and even Oscar the Hero each went around twice.
Despite some misconceptions, the Guardians’ strength in the regular season was never plate discipline. They are not the league leaders in anything to do with taking pitches or drawing walks. What they do great is make contact, especially on pitches out of the zone. They swung at the sixth-most balls outside of the zone in the regular season (34.2%), but led the majors in contact on those pitches by a wide margin (70.6%). No such luck tonight. Part of that was good Rays pitching — they are, after all, one of the best run-prevention teams in baseball — but when Shawn Armstrong is also carving you up, something is wrong.
I dare say that, for several innings, the Guardians looked truly rattled at the plate for maybe the first time this season. But they compartmentalized, kept playing great defense, kept preventing the Rays from getting an edge and they still came away victorious. Anyone can say their team “doesn’t quit” when they rally for one big inning in the ninth, but what about holding steady for 15 innings in the biggest game of most of these kids’ playing careers? That’s a team that’s too damn young to know anything but winning.
That’s this Guardians team.
Onto the ALDS.