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At this time last year, everything was going right for the Guardians. They picked up steam when they needed to, pulled away from everyone in the AL Central and clinched a postseason berth more than a week before the regular season came to an end.
This September, nothing is working in Cleveland’s favor.
For the sixth time this month, the Guardians battled through another one-run game. For the second time in the past week, closer Emmanuel Clase blew the save. And once again, the offense struggled to deliver the big hit, resulting in a 5-4, extra-innings loss to the Giants at Oracle Park on Monday night.
“It’s never just something,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said.
It’s easy to point the finger at Clase, who’s the last man for opponents to have to beat each night. While he leads the Majors with 39 saves, he also leads all relievers with 11 blown saves. He clearly hasn’t been as dominant as he was in 2022, but he can’t take all the blame during this rough skid.
The Guardians have gone 1-4 on this West Coast road trip with two games remaining before they head back to Cleveland. Although dropping two of three to the Twins at Progressive Field put a Mount Everest-sized obstacle ahead of the Guardians as they tried to chase Minnesota in the AL Central standings, this road trip has all but solidified Cleveland’s fate for the 2023 season.
“It’s tough, man,” Guardians designated hitter Kole Calhoun said, “especially when you’re chasing people in the standings when every game is important.”
As difficult of a time as the bullpen has had of late, the bats have struggled just as much. Entering the series in San Francisco, Cleveland had lost six of its previous eight games. It averaged just 2.7 runs per game, while batting .094 (5-for-53) with runners in scoring position in those six losses. On Monday, the Guardians were able to plate four runs, but still went just 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
“We had the opportunities,” Calhoun said. “We were in some good spots. Had some big hits when we needed it, but it’s been a tough road trip. It seems like we can’t get that big one to really separate us and give it up to the bullpen that has been awesome all year. So, it’s a tough one to swallow. Another one-run game. These ones hurt more than anything else.”
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The Guardians offense made strides against the Giants, as Josh Naylor became the first Cleveland player to record a splash hit at Oracle Park, launching a two-run homer into the water beyond the stands in right field. Steven Kwan also delivered a game-tying single in the seventh in front of friends and family in the ballpark he grew up attending. But at this point in the season, it’s too late to have to wait for the bats to heat up.
Calhoun tried to add in the fun. He smacked a 361-foot fly ball to left field with a runner on second in the first inning that was caught just in front of the wall. Later, he hit a long fly ball into the left-center-field gap that looked like it would find grass, but instead was tracked down by center fielder Luis Matos.
“We didn’t have a ton to show for it,” Francona said. “But we had hits. We’re just not getting a big hit when we need it.”
Of the 11 games the Guardians have played this month, six have been a one-run difference, leaving the club no room for error. A 7 1/2-game deficit in the AL Central with just 17 games remaining is nearly impossible to overcome. Cleveland has to win 13 of these contests to try to avoid the second losing season of Francona’s tenure.
Nothing will be easy in the final 2 1/2 weeks of the regular season, but until Cleveland’s elimination becomes official, the team is refusing to wave the white flag.
“There’s nothing we can do about it now,” Calhoun said. “We come out and play a good baseball game tomorrow. I mean, we’re playing good baseball. We’re coming out on the wrong side of these one-run games. It’s hard. But these guys don’t quit. We’ll be back in there again tomorrow, hungry and ready to go.”