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DENVER — Now comes the test.
The Guardians completed a three-game sweep of the Rockies at Coors Field with a 4-2 victory on Thursday afternoon to win for the 13th time in their past 16 games. Cleveland is one of the hottest teams in the Majors, but as the afterglow of another victory fades into the reality of what’s next, it’s time to see what this team can really do in 2022.
As they got on their plane to leave Denver on Thursday evening, the Guardians set their sights on Los Angeles, where they begin a challenging stretch of games against some of the best teams in baseball: Cleveland will play three against the Dodgers and three against the American League Central-leading Twins to close out their road trip, before hosting the Red Sox for three, the Twins for five (including a June 28 doubleheader) and baseball’s best team, the Yankees, for three.
For a team that is always punching above its weight, led by perhaps the most underrated player — AL MVP Award candidate Jos? Ram?rez — we’ll soon see just how far a young group that relies on contact and speed, a starting rotation that is rounding into form and a bullpen ranked in the top five in MLB will fare against two AL division leaders and the surging Red Sox, all in the span of 17 days.
“I don’t look that far back, and I don’t look that far forward,” manager Terry Francona said. “We’re going to have our hands full tomorrow night [at Dodger Stadium], and we’ll look forward to that challenge and see how we do.”
Francona added that while that was his way of looking at what’s ahead, and that his guys are good at keeping things in that kind of perspective, this is a young team that’s hungry.
The hunger was on display Thursday despite some late-inning drama. In the seventh, with the Guardians leading, 4-1, Bryan Shaw came in from the bullpen to relieve starter Triston McKenzie, who held Colorado to one run on seven hits and one walk while striking out six in his first career start at Coors Field. Shaw, who had turned in 10 consecutive scoreless outings, yielded consecutive singles to Brian Serven and Connor Joe to open the frame, then walked Charlie Blackmon to load the bases.
But Eli Morgan, who has emerged as one of the best late-inning relievers in the game and hadn’t given up a run since May 8, got Brendan Rodgers to pop out to shallow left field before C.J. Cron hit a sacrifice fly to right and Ryan McMahon bounced one softly back to the mound to end the threat.
Clinging to a two-run lead in the ninth, Emmanuel Clase immediately found himself in trouble as he tried to nail down his third save in as many days. Serven and Joe were once again the instigators, rattling off consecutive singles to start the frame. But Clase got Blackmon to fly out deep to center, and then induced a game-ending double play off Rodgers’ bat. It was the third straight game Cleveland ended a win with a double play.
“The key is to execute those uncomfortable pitches,” Clase said through an interpreter, “but also be confident you can execute those pitches.”
Confidence is running high among the Guardians as they leave the Mile High City for Hollywood. While they know there’s a tall task awaiting them over the next couple of weeks and that things might get “uncomfortable” at times, they’ll need that confidence to see things through.
They’ve certainly put themselves in a good position with their run against the Royals, Orioles, Rangers, A’s and Rockies, who collectively entered play Thursday with a .397 winning percentage (125-190 record). But Cleveland’s mettle is about to be tested.
McKenzie admitted he was looking ahead to his next two starts because of the opponent.
“A hundred percent,” he said. “I think as starters, we kind of plan out our starts and who we’re going to be facing, and I’m going to be against Minnesota my next two. So I’m excited for that, because those are big games for us. … We’re not happy with second place. We’re excited to go out there and compete and show we’re better than them.”
The next two-plus weeks will be telling for the Guardians, but Francona has his finger on the pulse of Cleveland’s heartbeat.
“With youth comes some enthusiasm, which is fun,” he said. “As long as they’re trying to do the right thing, it creates excitement for old guys like me, which is OK.”