‘Playoff series’ mentality pushing Guards to historic start

2:55 AM UTC

CLEVELAND — As the Guardians wrapped up their disappointing 2023 season at the beginning of October in Detroit, missing all playoff action, José Ramírez made a declaration: “Be ready next year.”

That chip on the shoulder mentality has been one of the driving forces behind Cleveland’s surge to start the year. Having Austin Hedges’ infectious energy in the dugout has made it impossible for the team to ever think it’s out of a game. Having a new manager at the helm may have mixed things up just enough to bring some new life to a stale offense. It’s the recipe that leads to improbable victories like Tuesday night.

The Guardians had fallen into a five-run hole in the top of the fourth inning, but they chipped away in the bottom of the frame and plated five runs in the seventh to secure an 8-5 victory over the Royals at Progressive Field.

“If you don’t truly believe that we have a chance to come back every time you get down, you’re going to say, ‘Here we go again,’ and just get buried deeper and deeper,” Guardians manager Stephen Vogt said. “But our guys truly believe we’re one rally, one hit away from starting a rally to come back and we don’t quit. These guys don’t quit.”

It’s this mentality that’s led to picking up 40 wins in the team’s first 60 games for just the fourth time in team history (also 1999, 1995 and 1954). They’re just one of three teams to eclipse the 40-win mark so far this season, joining the Yankees and Phillies. Fifteen of their wins have been in comeback fashion. And now, it’s even more critical to lean on.

It’s never too early to circle a series on the calendar. It may only be the first week of June, but the Guardians and Royals both know what’s at stake. The two hottest teams in the AL Central squared off for the first time this season on Tuesday night — each hoping to establish a tone and get momentum moving in their favor. Round 1 went to the Guardians, as they extended their lead to five games over the second-place Royals in the AL Central.

“I think momentum is huge in baseball,” Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor. “We just faced a great ballclub in the Royals. They had a great starter today that we beat. I think it’s just credit to the group as a whole, bullpen included, starter included, one through nine, we just played a complete game.”

Cleveland starter Triston McKenzie got hit early, allowing three homers (two by Bobby Witt Jr.) in the first four frames that put the Guardians in a five-run deficit. But an RBI single by Ramírez and a two-run blast from Naylor plated three runs off of Seth Lugo, which started to shift the momentum back in Cleveland’s favor. After a two-run blast by Tyler Freeman knotted the score in the seventh, a three-run error charged to Witt opened up the game.

“It’s a special group,” Freeman said. “We’re just never out of any game. We could be down five, 10, 15 runs, we’re gonna have the same energy and no matter who is pitching or whatever it may be, we’re treating every series like a playoff series. We’re not surprised when we get there. I think that’s kind of driving us right now.”

Why? What’s the key to this mentality?

“Austin Hedges,” Freeman said with a big grin. “He just reminds us every single series [that] we’re going to play [it] as a playoff series just so we’re not surprised when we’re there. We’re having fun doing it. Everyone’s having fun and our pitching is nasty, our hitting is nasty. We’re just doing really well right now.”

It’s a culture that was cultivated during Spring Training. The energy continued to build after a hot start to the regular season. It became a mantra after the Guardians saw how effective it could become. And now, with a critical series taking place, the team knows it has this fuel to rely on.

If the Guardians can treat every series like a playoff series, maybe they can find their way back into postseason play in 2024. Most of the roster from last year returned this season. Everyone in the room remembers the pain of packing up in Detroit and heading for home instead of October baseball. The Guardians don’t want to experience that again. Eight months later, Freeman recited the words Ramírez shouted out to his teammates.

Freeman added: “Everyone took that to heart.”