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CLEVELAND — The Guardians knew the most crucial stretch of their season was beginning on Thursday against the second-place White Sox. In a span of eight days, Cleveland would be facing the third-place Twins five times and White Sox four times. But because of the packed schedule, the team wanted to be conservative with its pitching plans. That resulted in sending Hunter Gaddis to the rubber in the tone-setting opener to a challenging week ahead.
Prior to Thursday’s makeup game (rescheduled after an Aug. 21 rainout) against the White Sox, Gaddis had just one big league start under his belt, an Aug. 5 outing against the Astros that didn’t go well. That start saw him allow eight runs, all earned, in 3 1/3 innings. This time, he pitched to a similar outcome, tying a franchise record by allowing five homers in an 8-2 Guardians loss at Progressive Field.
Guardians manager Terry Francona was asked Wednesday why he thought it was best to push Triston McKenzie back to Friday against the Twins, and call up Gaddis to face Chicago, given that the Guardians are 3-0 when McKenzie faces the White Sox this season.
With Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale out, two spots in the rotation are being filled by starters who don’t provide much depth. That means the bullpen has had to take on more innings. It has also left the other three starters (McKenzie, Shane Bieber and Cal Quantrill) with a heavy task of trying to eat up as many innings as possible in each start to save the ‘pen.
Long story short: The Guardians wanted to give McKenzie an extra day of rest with the rigorous schedule that’s ahead.
“You’ve heard me say a lot, you can’t just do things when it’s convenient,” Francona said Wednesday evening. “We don’t have days off. We need to do what’s right, because we desperately need them.”
This move didn’t result in a win, but it can still benefit the Guardians. In the loss to the White Sox, the club’s top relievers took a much-needed day of rest. Bieber, Quantrill and McKenzie are still lined up to get four more starts each, and Bieber and McKenzie will both still pitch in Chicago next week.
The downside of Gaddis’ spot start, though, was that the Guardians are now just three games ahead of the White Sox. And if the Twins beat the Royals on Thursday night, Minnesota will come to Cleveland on Friday sitting four games back heading into a five-game series.
This week presents the Guardians with the opportunity to run away with the division. An AL Central title would mean Cleveland would host all three games of the Wild Card Round at Progressive Field, beginning Oct. 7 against the lowest Wild Card seed. But the week ahead also has the potential to cause chaos within the division, and Thursday’s loss opens the door even more for that mayhem to occur.
This brings on a lot of “What if?” scenarios. Let’s answer each one.
What happens if the Guardians and the White Sox end the season tied for first place in the AL Central?There is no longer a Game 163. If two teams finish the season tied for a playoff spot, the team with the better head-to-head record will advance. Right now, the Guardians lead the season series against the White Sox 9-7. Cleveland just needs one more win in the three-game series in Chicago, which begins Tuesday, in order clinch the tiebreaker.
What happens if the Guardians and the Twins tie?Same thing; it comes down to the head-to-head record. Entering the five-game series over the next four days, the Guardians have a 9-5 record against Minnesota. The Guardians also need just one win against the Twins to clinch the tiebreaker.
What happens if all three teams end the year in a tie for first place?The tiebreaker then goes to the combined record each team has against the other two clubs.
For example, the Guardians would combine their records against the White Sox AND the Twins (currently 18-12). The Twins would combine their records against the White Sox and Guardians (12-15 for now) and the White Sox would do the same against the Guardians and Twins (13-16). Whoever has the best record of the three would take the title.
What’s next?Securing one win in each of these next two series is crucial for the Guardians to be sure that they’ll clinch a postseason berth in the event of any type of tie. But there’s still plenty of time left for anything to happen, and Cleveland will have to hope that this extra day of rest will allow McKenzie to set the tone in the series opener against the Twins on Friday.