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KANSAS CITY — The Guardians’ 3-1 loss to the Royals at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday afternoon showed flashes of trends that the team is going to need to fight against all season long.
It’s the expectations that have been put on the team since the beginning of Spring Training (and, well, over the past few years): Receive solid pitching but struggle to get run support outside of the bat of Jose Ramirez, who was responsible for Cleveland’s lone RBI.
With youth will come growing pains, and the Guardians are certainly young, considering their Opening Day roster was the fifth youngest by average age in the past 30 years, according to MLB.com’s Sarah Langs and the Elias Sports Bureau. But just because some bumps and bruises are expected, the team is trying to hold itself to a higher standard in 2022.
But Thursday’s recipe was not one that will lead to much success this season. So how can Cleveland avoid this becoming commonplace? The three biggest keys will be clean defense, playing small ball and not being afraid to get even younger.
Guardians manager Terry Francona admitted before the game that this Opening Day came with a little more anxiety than others simply because Spring Training was much shorter than anyone was used to, leading to messier play on defense (especially on a day with wind gusts up to 45 mph). That concern became reality when first baseman Bobby Bradley booted a ball in the first inning, then again in the fifth inning when the wind took a high fly ball by Hunter Dozier to left field, leaving Amed Rosario scrambling in his first game in that position, which led to a run.
“That’s a tough spot, and I feel bad,” Francona said of Rosario’s dropped ball. “Our job is to put guys in a position where they can succeed. I feel like I missed that with him. He’s a good kid. He’ll be fine. I told [Shane Bieber], I said, ‘That one’s on me.’ And that’s how I felt.”
When the defense is strong behind this rotation that still has plenty of potential to be dominant, all eyes to dart to the offense. There’s no hiding the fact that the Guardians don’t have huge power hitters outside of Ramirez, Franmil Reyes and Bradley. The rest of the offensive production will need to come from playing small ball and being efficient on the bases. Francona preached to his team from the first day of camp that the only way they can continue to truly compete is if they are an exceptional baserunning team.
“We have to do that every day,” Francona said during camp. “There’s no gray area. And it’s probably not fair, but that’s the way it is.”
“I do think we’re gonna have to do things different,” Guardians hitting coach Chris Valaika said. “We do have some guys that can hit home runs, but we’re gonna have to move the ball all over the field. We’re gonna have to bunt. We’re gonna have to hit and run. We’re gonna have to do little things to help us win games.”
That leaves us with the team’s openness to get even younger. Yes, youth can bring some question marks and certainly some mistakes, but Steven Kwan has already shown the benefits of what passing the baton to the next generation can provide. He wasn’t intimated in his Major League debut (which came against a hurler like Zack Greinke), drawing two walks and logging a single. And throughout this spring and his Minor League career, Kwan has flashed his exceptional bat-to-ball skills that can help a lineup in desperate need of help. At some point, prospects like Gabriel Arias (No. 3), Logan T. Allen (No. 8) or Nick Mikolajchak (No. 29) could join the mix; it’s just determining if adding players like them sooner rather than later could be the most beneficial step forward.
Opening Day receives a lot of attention, but in the end, it is just one game of 162. However, these keys — some of which weren’t necessarily executed on Thursday — are ones to be mindful of as the season continues to assure that this exact storyline isn’t a common occurrence.
“It is about wins and losses,” Francona said. “But we made a couple mistakes, but we played hard and we’ll come back again, not tomorrow, but the next day and see if we can do a little better.”