CLEVELAND (AP) — The Guardians have won with comebacks and walk-offs for months, turning an unexpected season more special by the day.
Cleveland wasn’t supposed to be this good, this fast.
Baseball’s youngest team certainly has grown up.
Rookie Oscar Gonzalez broke up the longest scoreless postseason game in history with a leadoff home run in the 15th inning, giving the Guardians a 1-0 win in Game 2 over the Tampa Bay Rays and sweep of the Wild Card Series.
Gonzalez, who walks to the plate to the “SpongeBob SquarePants” theme song, drove a 1-0 cutter — the 432nd pitch in the nearly five-hour game — off Corey Kluber over the wall in left-center to touch off a wild celebration.
As Gonzalez rounded the bases, and his teammates gathered near home plate to greet him, the sellout crowd of 34,971 fans shook Progressive Field as Cleveland’s surprise season added a story book chapter.
“There’s no way to describe it,” said Gonzalez, who punctuated his shot with an emphatic bat flip before strutting toward first. “It was such an exciting moment that it’s hard for me to put into words.”
Now, the Guardians, who have had been fun-loving, free and fearless since opening day, start the best-of-five Division Series on Tuesday in New York against the AL East champion New York Yankees.
On their visit to Yankee Stadium in April, the Guardians were swept and trash was thrown at them.
They’re returning a different team.
Guardians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti isn’t buying any David vs. Goliath storyline.
“We haven’t gotten caught up with that and what the external narrative has been around our team,” he said. “These guys have written their own story.
“The Yankees are obviously a great team and we know we have our work cut out for us, but these guys embrace the challenge.”
Cleveland has defied odds in its first season after adopting the Guardians nickname. The team ran away in the AL Central by going 24-6 down the stretch, swept the more experienced Rays and now take on the Yankees with their big bats and bigger payroll ($254 million to Cleveland’s $68 million).
Gonzalez was among 17 players to make their debut for the Guardians this season, so perhaps it was fitting he advanced them.
“I don’t think by that point we cared,” manager Terry Francona said. “It could have been one of the old guys. We didn’t care. We’re not biased. I was happy that he hit it.”
Tampa Bay was bounced quickly from its fourth straight postseason appearance. The Rays finished with seven straight losses, scored one run in the series and hit .115 (9 for 78) with one extra-base hit.
“I saw guys trying to do too much,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We were looking for the three-run homer with nobody on base. When you take that mindset against good pitchers, they can kind of sit you down.”
Gonzalez’s shot off Kluber, who won two Cy Young Awards with Cleveland, finished a game that began at 12:08 p.m. and ended in twilight.
The tense, 4-hour, 57-minute game was the longest 0-0 affair in postseason history, surpassing the 2020 NL Wild Card Series opener between Atlanta and Cincinnati that went 13 innings. The teams combined for a postseason record 39 strikeouts — 20 by Rays batters.
This one had a little bit of everything, except offense.
Tampa had six hits and used eight pitchers, including Kluber, who made his first relief appearance in more than nine years. Cleveland got five hits, also used eight pitchers and squandered a bases-loaded opportunity in the sixth.
Guardians All-Star third baseman José Ramírez kept the game scoreless with spectacular defense in the 12th. Ranging right, Ramírez backhanded Margot’s bouncer near the bag before making a quick throw from foul territory across the diamond.
First baseman Josh Naylor made a long stretch, scooped Ramírez’s throw and kept his toe on the bag. The Rays challenged, but the out call stood, denying Tampa Bay its best chance to break the stalemate.
“He kind of willed himself there to make that play,” Francona said of Ramírez. “I don’t know if it’s a game-saving, it might be a year-saving play. They score on that play and the way things were going we weren’t throwing crooked numbers up.”
Tampa Bay’s Tyler Glasnow and Cleveland’s Triston McKenzie set the tone for another tight, well-pitched game between the teams — the fifth straight decided by one run.
Glasnow allowed two hits in five innings before hitting his pitch limit, while McKenzie gave up just two hits and struck out eight in six.
Sam Hentges struck out six in three scoreless innings to get the win, one the left-hander and Cleveland fans will cherish.
“Nobody said it would be easy,” Francona said. “But just keep playing. And they did a really good job of that. They continue to do that.”
Francona rides a scooter to and from the ballpark each day. On the way to his apartment after Friday’s win, Francona ventured down East 4th Street packed with fans celebrating Cleveland’s win.
His trip started, um, eventfully.
Shortly after leaving Progressive Field, he was stopped by a woman who began pulling off her shirt. Afraid he might see more than he bargained for, Francona covered his eyes before she revealed a T-shirt with his face on it.
“I didn’t know that,” he said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t want this on camera.’”
Francona enjoys zipping around the city without constraint or concern.
“Every policeman in town here either high-fives me or says hello,” he said. “They’re always helping with the parking. You can’t do that anywhere else.”
Before his heroics, Gonzalez broke his belt while sliding headfirst into second base on a steal attempt in the seventh inning. The 25-year-old quickly borrowed first-base coach Sandy Alomar Jr.’s belt before play resumed.
Ramírez is undeniably one of baseball’s most dangerous and disciplined hitters. Cash noted putting a game plan together isn’t easy.
“It might be impossible,” he said, chuckling. “I mean, what other switch hitter in the game right now is comparable?”
Cash worked in Cleveland’s organization and remembers Ramírez as a shortstop prospect with little power. He’s now a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate.
“I certainly wouldn’t have forecast it after watching him play in 2014 that he was going to turn into the 35-, 40-homer guy, but what a career.”