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DETROIT — For the first time since June 23, the Guardians spent the day in first place in the American League Central. The next step is to figure out how to create some separation from the second-place Twins.
It wasn’t pretty, as Cleveland blew a two-run lead in the ninth inning, but the Guardians ended up taking advantage of a three-game set against the Tigers, sweeping the series with a 4-3 victory in 10 innings at Comerica Park on Thursday afternoon. Because of the Twins’ off-day on Thursday, the Guardians head to Toronto with a 1 1/2 game lead in the division.
“We’re buzzing,” Guardians starter Zach Plesac said. “You can tell we have a winning streak. Guys know how to win. We’re playing together. Timely hitting. It seems like everything is coming together right now.”
Entering Opening Day, FanGraphs gave the Guardians a 13.5 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 6.4 percent chance of winning the division. Entering play on Thursday, Cleveland’s chances sat at 52.9 percent to clinch a postseason berth and 39.3 percent to take the AL Central.
A three-game sweep against the Tigers certainly helped. And the fact that the Guardians are set to face Detroit again in Cleveland for four games next week will be another opportunity to rack up victories. But the team will have a challenge in the meantime, heading to Toronto to face a playoff-contending club in the Blue Jays, who currently own the top AL Wild Card spot.
How can the Guardians ensure they won’t slip in the standings? Let’s take a look at three keys to Cleveland’s recent success:
1. Clase is essentialThis was quite apparent on Thursday. Emmanuel Clase pitched in Cleveland’s last four games and was unavailable for the series finale against the Tigers. And when Clase isn’t available, James Karinchak has earned the right to be the next man up. But when he was also unavailable, the Guardians ran into some trouble.
Cleveland had a two-run lead entering the ninth, but after Trevor Stephan was tagged for two in the frame, the game went to extras. And after the Guardians got the lead in the top of the 10th, Bryan Shaw was the man the team had to turn to for the save.
If Clase had been able to pitch, the confidence level in the game ending after nine would have been high.
“It’s Clase. You don’t really get a hit off him ever,” Shaw said. “He’s starting to learn his finger pressure, he’s starting to learn command better, he’s starting to become an elite pitcher.”
2. Kwan is on another levelImagine if Steven Kwan never fouled a pitch off his foot on Aug. 5 that led to his early departure from Cleveland’s matchup against the Astros. He had been riding an 18-game hitting streak entering that night and would have had more time to try extending it to 19 if he could have remained in the game. Since then, he has picked up at least one hit in each of his next four games.
Kwan has been everything the Guardians could have asked for in a rookie, let alone as a leadoff hitter. Entering the day, he had logged a .355 average with an .884 OPS over his last 22 games. He added a solo homer on Thursday, along with a pair of walks, to continue to be a potent force at the top of the order.
“He’s the dude right now,” Plesac said. “I mean, if he’s not in the top three for Rookie of the Year, someone’s messing up right now, because he’s going off.”
3. Keep getting Gonzalez repsOscar Gonzalez has been a pleasant surprise for the Guardians this season. He proved again that he can deliver in big spots, smacking the go-ahead RBI single in the 10th inning that secured Cleveland’s victory. While the team needs to rotate through its young players to properly evaluate everyone, Gonzalez has certainly earned the right to be in the lineup as frequently as possible. Manager Terry Francona has already proven his willingness to put the rookie in the cleanup spot, and with Owen Miller’s struggles, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gonzalez hit fourth more frequently.
But regardless of when he comes to the plate, Gonzalez has been a nice boost to the offense this season — one that has proven it refuses to quit, even in extra innings.
“I think there’s something to be said about not putting your head down when things don’t go right and continuing to play,” Francona said. “But they keep playing. That’s a good characteristic.”