Kwan’s HR sparks 6-run frame in Guardians’ win

4:24 AM UTC

MIAMI — Steven Kwan: Spark plug.

That’s how Guardians manager Stephen Vogt described his leadoff hitter before Cleveland’s 8-0 win over Miami on Saturday night at loanDepot park. Vogt ended up being more right than he could have anticipated.

In just his fifth game since returning from the injured list (left hamstring strain), Kwan showed off why he’s earned a reputation as one of the best contact hitters in baseball — after all, his .371 average leads the Majors (.min 150 at-bats).

It was no surprise when Kwan led off the game with a single, interrupting the Marlins’ rhythm before José Ramírez homered two batters later. It was also no surprise when Kwan worked a leadoff walk before scoring on a single by Josh Naylor in the third.

And, with the Guardians up 2-0 two innings later, it was also no surprise when Kwan crushed a two-run homer, the catalyst for what became a six-run fifth inning for Cleveland. Kwan was the second of six consecutive Guardians to reach base — and score — in that frame, which saw 11 batters step to the plate.

It helped that Ben Lively — who earned his fifth consecutive win, allowing three hits over five scoreless innings — was cruising through the Marlins’ lineup, delivering quick frames so that the offense could maintain its momentum from inning to inning.

“It gives guys the freedom to swing first pitch,” Kwan said. “If we have a long inning on defense, you kind of feel like maybe you have to see one [pitch], wait till you get a strike. If it’s a quick inning, we can jump on that first one. And if a guy’s throwing strikes, we can get something going.”

Kwan finished the night 2-for-3, reaching base four times (two walks) and scoring twice. Those early hits got the ball rolling, precisely what Kwan does best.

“I just keep running out of ways to describe Kwanie and what he means to us and just — the job he does,” Vogt said postgame. “For him to lead off the game, getting things started, and then the big homer that kind of broke it open — Kwanie just continues to be that spark plug for us and the driver of the lineup.”

So, how can Kwan continue creating opportunities? Part of it comes down to preparation. Kwan, who is used to being an everyday player, has learned how to navigate playing a few games at a time while returning from his injury by watching how teammate David Fry prepares.

“Early on, he was looking at film, getting into cages, just always being ready,” Kwan said, “and I think that was kind of something I wanted to learn from. … Having a day-off and day-in [schedule], it’s hard to get that consistency, but he’s been finding a way.”

But not everything can be attributed to Kwan’s preparation.

Steven Kwan knows what Steven Kwan does best. And he has no plan or desire to break from his identity. He’s a contact hitter — one of the best in the game — and he takes his role atop the lineup seriously.

“I guess, thankfully, I’m blessed to not be able to hit the ball out of the ballpark all the time,” Kwan said. “I mean, I know that’s a bad way to say it today — but just trying to stay really within, two strikes, just spoil a pitch, try to see another one. And luckily, good things will happen when you don’t try to muscle the ball out of the ballpark.

“I know I’m supposed to see pitches, I’m supposed to get José runners on base and kind of just keep the ball moving. I think if I continue to do that, good things will happen.”

That’s why it doesn’t matter that Kwan doesn’t have the kind of power that leads to double-digit homers season after season. The type of hitter that Kwan is, well, it’s a dying art. Luis Arraez, who the Marlins traded to the Padres on May 4, is one of the few known primarily for hitting to get on base rather than for power.

“A lot of Luis Arraez in him,” Marlins manager Skip Schumaker said. “He’s got bat-to-ball skill. [Can] go the other way. He’s tough to punch out. … When you have really good swing decisions and strike zone awareness, it’s very difficult to get you out, and he does.”

“There’s just not a whole lot of guys that can do what he does anymore,” Vogt said. “It’s not the way our game is played — contact isn’t as valued sometimes as power. But, you know, Kwanie possesses the ability to put the ball in play to all fields, off lefties and righties, and it’s really fun to watch.”