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ST. PETERSBURG — July was grueling for the Guardians, with four doubleheaders and an 11-game road trip right out of the All-Star break. Yet somehow, the team managed to come out of the month in the thick of the American League Central race, sitting three games above .500 (52-49).
Despite having to piece their pitching plans together for the second time this week with Bryan Shaw working as the club’s opener, the Guardians punctuated the road trip with a 5-3 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field on Sunday.
The Guardians didn’t have many hard-hit balls, but they chipped away at this year’s AL All-Star Game starting pitcher, Shane McClanahan, marking the first time a team has scored more than three earned runs against him this season. The win epitomized Cleveland’s month: It might not have been pretty, but somehow the team grinded through.
“It’s fantastic, and obviously this team has shown all year what we can do,” Shaw said of the team’s 6-5 road trip. “We’ve got some guys banged up here and there. We got guys stepping up for those guys, and it’s just a lot of fun.”
How are the Guardians still remaining in contention, and how can they improve (especially with the Trade Deadline approaching at 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday) to stay in the race? Let’s take a look:
What has going right?1. Steven KwanWe’re running out of words to describe what Kwan has been able to do this year. He stole all the headlines at the beginning of the season when it seemed impossible to strike him out. But even though he has had a few K’s since then, he has been elite for the Guardians at the top of the lineup. His bunt single in the first inning of Sunday’s game extended his hit streak to 14 games, which was the second-longest active hitting streak in the Majors entering the day.
Since the start of July, he has racked up 38 hits — the most by a Cleveland rookie in a month since Francisco Lindor (38) in September 2015. Kwan also entered the day with the most hits by any AL player for the month. And let’s not forget that he added another outfield assist in the fifth inning (his eighth of the season) by throwing out Brandon Lowe at the plate.
With Kwan setting the tone at the top of the lineup, his offense follows suit. The team owns the most hits and the third-highest batting average in the Majors since the All-Star break.
“I think it’s just the culture of the team,” Kwan said. “It’s just working as a team together. So if we can do that, we can be successful.”
2. Emmanuel ClaseWe don’t need to take much time to explain what has gone right here. When the ball gets handed to Clase in the ninth inning with a lead, it has basically been a guarantee that the game is over. Since May 20, Clase has allowed just one run in 28 innings with 30 strikeouts and three walks.
What has gone wrong?1. RotationThe Guardians certainly don’t have their strongest rotation right now when they have to turn to Shaw and Kirk McCarty to eat the majority of the innings twice in one week, but the club has managed to work around these woes. Still, it has become commonplace for the rotation to be Cleveland’s greatest strength. This season, that has not been the case.
Although Triston McKenzie has been solid and Shane Bieber is trending in the right direction, the rotation entered the day owning a collective 4.12 ERA, ranking 17th in the Majors. If the playoffs started tomorrow, the team would have McKenzie and Bieber to bank on, but the rest of the rotation may not be as reliable. That momentum could change as the season continues, or the Guardians may need to look externally for some help.
2. Holes in the lineupAs solid as the offense has been this season, there are still glaring holes that need to be addressed. The Guardians have received very little offensive production from their catchers, as the team entered the day with the second-worst batting average from its backstops in the Majors (.173). And as the club waits to find out if first baseman Josh Naylor will be out for an extended period, any bad news would result in a significant dropoff in production.
Will any of these issues be fixed with one move before Tuesday evening? We’ll have to wait to find out.