MINNESOTA — The Guardians know that a lot of things must go right in order for them to secure the division title, but the club successfully completed step one in Minnesota this weekend.
After holding on to wins on Friday and Saturday, the Guardians returned on Sunday afternoon to complete the three-game sweep with a 4-1 victory over the Twins at Target Field. It marked Cleveland’s first sweep of at least three games over Minnesota since a four-game sweep from June 16-18, 2017.
In a ridiculously close division race between the Guardians, White Sox and Twins, this was the first step Cleveland needed to take in order to better its odds of securing a postseason berth. How did the Guardians get here? There are three key reasons:
It wasn’t just the three-game series at Target Field that was successful for Cleveland. The Guardians went 5-1 on their two-city road trip. Their starting pitching has been impeccable in that span, going 4-0 with a 1.25 ERA.
Triston McKenzie is proving he can be a big-game pitcher. Cal Quantrill has been one of the most reliable arms they’ve had all season. And Shane Bieber showed again on Sunday that he’s back to his old ways, striking out seven while his heater averaged around 92 mph. And when the starters come out of the game, the bullpen has been lights-out.
Kwan put together another three-hit game on Sunday, including a big blast that helped secure the three-run victory. It’s nothing new for the rookie, but the biggest takeaway from the series is that Kwan knows how to make adjustments and never seems to be fazed by struggles.
Kwan hadn’t been hitting the way we’ve been used to seeing this year over the last few games. Entering Sunday, he had hit just .170 over his past 12 games. But even as a young player, Kwan has been able to pull himself out of skids before they drag on too long. He reached base four times on Saturday by drawing four walks. He followed that with a three-hit afternoon on Sunday, and continues to be the heartbeat of this lineup.
Uncharacteristic big swings
The Guardians almost never rely on the long ball. They’ve hit the second-fewest of all 30 big league clubs this season. But their struggles before the road trip were largely based around failing to get the timely hit. How do you get around that? Well, hitting the ball out of the park is a good start.
Good teams need to be able to be adaptable and find ways to win, especially when their usual methods aren’t working. The Guardians did just that when the usually defensively sound club ran into several miscues on Friday and Saturday, but found ways to stay in the win column.
“I don’t remember winning here and having that much anxiety late in the game,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said with a laugh. “We made it hard, but we won. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
Likewise, the Mariners changed the playbook on Sunday, with Kwan and Andrés Giménez defying the team’s contact-heavy approach to crush early home runs.
Why it matters
The sweep allowed the Guardians to create much-needed breathing room between themselves and the Twins in the AL Central standings. The two will meet again next weekend for a five-game series, but this could be the punch that knocks the wind out of the struggling Twins, who have lost 15 of their last 22 games dating back to Aug. 20.
The Guardians now sit 4 1/2 games ahead of the third-place Twins. Cleveland moved 2 1/2 games ahead of the White Sox, who lost to the A’s on Sunday.
Now, the foot race begins.
This lead means everything, especially considering the Guardians and White Sox have a makeup game on Thursday prior to the five-game marathon against the Twins. After that, the Guardians fly to Chicago to begin a three-game duel at Guaranteed Rate Field. Cleveland needs to hold on to the momentum it established in Minnesota.
“There are a lot of areas we can continue to get better at,” Bieber said, “but we knew it was a good series coming in, so to be able to capitalize on that was good for us.”