Reaction and Analysis: Oscar Gonzalez Walk-Off Leads Guardians to ALDS

After over five hours of scoreless baseball, all it took was one swing off the bat of Guardians outfielder Oscar Gonzalez to send the home crowd home happy and Cleveland into the ALDS against the New York Yankees. That series begins Tuesday, but for now, let’s reflect. Here are my observations on Game 2, the Rays-Guardians series at large and what’s to come next against New York.

The Analogy

  • I called Friday’s game a classic pitcher’s duel and the type of game that would have felt more at home thirty years ago. Today, I have a much stranger analogy for Saturday’s game. Game 2 was trench warfare. For fourteen and a half innings, the front never moved. The advantage never changed. Every inch of the 360 feet required to create a run was agonizing. There might as well have been barbed wire on the baselines. Plodding and punishing baseball until finally Oscar Gonzalez showed up in the middle of War World I with a heat seeking rocket launcher. He just so happened to hit one of those heat-seeking rockets right into the left field bleachers.

The Starting Pitchers

  • It feels like about two days ago that Triston McKenzie and Tyler Glasnow were pitching. Both were as advertised, if not better.
  • Glasnow came out and pitched super efficiently to the point that even though he was on a 75-pitch limit, he could have come back out for the 6th. Rays manager Kevin Cash decided to stick to his plan though and went to the bullpen (perhaps learning from yesterday, as I suggested). Glasnow used the same fastball-curveball combination that Shane McClanahan utilized on Friday and did it masterfully, though he leaned more heavily on his four-seamer. Glasnow used the curve more like a put-away pitch, rather than something to mix in throughout the count to keep hitters off balance. Regardless, Glasnow only allowed individual singles to Josh Naylor in the 2nd and Will Brennan in the 5th. That’s it. Those were his only base-runners allowed in five innings of work.
  • Honestly, I thought McKenzie came out a little too amped up. He got a little lucky in the first inning as he got into a 3-1 count against Yandy Diaz and 3-0 count against Randy Arozarena but ultimately got them both out. Arozarena in particular I think gave him a gift by hitting a lazy fly-ball on a 3-0 count.
  • Regardless, McKenzie matched Glasnow pitch-for-pitch with the added cherry of pitching through 6th
  • He threw more sliders today than he did in his September 28th outing when he faced the Rays and  I think that spoke more to him feeling more confidence and command in that slider on Saturday than anything else. He had a good curve on Saturday too, but the slider was working. McKenzie also pitched up in the zone more with both his fastball and slider than he did last time vs. the Rays. I specifically remember him striking out Ji-Man Choi on a high slider that tricked the Rays first baseman.
  • Until Arozarena’s single in the 6th moved Wander Franco to second base, no Tampa Bay Ray had touched second base vs. a Guardians starting pitcher in the series. That’s right. For the entire series the Rays had one plate appearance with a man in scoring position against the Guardians starting staff. It’s easy to forget that these two games are a lot of these Guardians’ players first foray into playoff baseball. McKenzie looked like a seasoned pro. No Guardians rookie pitcher had ever pitched six shutout innings before Triston did on Saturday.

The Bullpens Navigating Through Trouble

  • I will say that Saturday’s bottom of the 6th is the exact argument that can be made against the Guardians’ continued success in October. They scraped and clawed and battled via two walks and a hit by pitch in order to get themselves what is probably the one situation that gives them the best chance to score: bases loaded, no one out and Jose Ramirez at the plate. They proceeded to not score, because the Rays have a stable of highly competent arms and were playing perfectly positioned and fundamental defense. That’s going to be the case with most teams at this heightened level of play.
  • I think there was one specific key pitch to that inning though. Rays reliever Jason Adam came in for Pete Fairbanks (more on him later) and immediately hit Amed Rosario on the first pitch to load the bases. He then fell behind Ramirez 2-0 on two high fastballs before throwing a 2-0 change-up that Hosey offered at badly. It was down and out of the zone and Ramirez was way out in front. That’s not all on Ramirez , the pitch was deceptively good and Adam realized it. Seven of Adam’s nine remaining pitches to end the inning were change-ups. All of them were strikes. He threw five more in the 7th out of the nine pitches he threw in that inning and they were all strikes as well. If Ramirez doesn’t offer 2-0, the game may have ended in regulation. But Adam had a killer change-up. He deserves credit for skating out of bases loaded and no one out.
  • Of course, Adam replaced Pete Fairbanks. Fairbanks walked Myles Straw and Steven Kwan to start the inning and even though he hadn’t faced three hitters, he was removed after facing Kwan as the trainer was brought out after the at bat. The official diagnosis was a numb index finger on his pitching hand. I will reserve judgment for now… all I am going to say is that I’ve never heard of such and injury before and that is awfully interesting.
  • As great as all the starting pitching was on both sides. The bullpens were just as magnificent on Saturday. Relievers that pitched at least an inning and didn’t allow a base-runner: Drew Rasmussen and Garrett Cleavinger for Tampa Bay. Trevor Stephan, Emmanuel Clase and Eli Morgan for Cleveland. The Rays bullpen had a 0.70 WHIP in the two games. The Guardians bullpen was at 0.68. The only run allowed by either was the game-winner in Game 2 after a combined 20 1/3 innings pitched.
  • Jose Ramirez may not have provided the decisive blow with his bat, but he made two defensive plays that made all the difference. With men on the corners and two out in the 12th he caught a grounder down the line hit by Manny Margot on his backhand side and while falling out of play had the quickest release imaginable while putting the throw on line for Naylor to stretch for it at first. My description doesn’t do the play justice. Go try to find a highlight reel. It was Brooks Robinson-like.

  • Tampa ended up challenging whether Naylor stayed on the base or not. The Rays first base coach was adamant he was off the bag. I disagree. The call stood on the field, but was not confirmed. On a stretch like that, it’s not uncommon for the first baseman to catch the ball on the base and then come off in a fluid motion. If the first baseman stretches too soon, he is out of athletic position and can’t adjust to the throw. Naylor stretched late like he is supposed to, which can give the optical illusion that he is coming off the bag because he is moving forward while catching the ball. Additionally, he’s wearing cleats. So, just because his foot looks extended doesn’t mean there isn’t a cleat or two on the bag.
  • Ramirez flashed the leather and a strong arm, again in the 13th when he knocked a ball down and recovered in time to throw out Diaz and end the inning. For a third baseman playing deep and not fielding the ball cleanly, its incredibly hard to throw the runner out. Hosey nailed it.
  • I came into this game thinking the first team to crack the other team’s pitching would end up winning- whether that was Glasnow faltering, McKenzie not having it or one of the bullpens having a guy having an off-game. However, it was probably about the 9th inning that I began to believe that these two teams were so evenly matched that the outcome was going to come down to something freak and weird. We almost had that freak and weird incident in the bottom of the 12th when Andres Gimenez thought he checked his swing on a 1-1 pitch and then thought the count was 2-1 when it was really 1-2. Personally, I thought Gimenez checked as well, but I also think Gimenez was the only one confused and unaware of the actual count. When Gimenez struck out and the Rays began walking off the field, he began to motion to Gonzalez (the runner at first) to start advancing,thinking he wasn’t out and it was a 2-2 count. Gonzalez got all the way to third before cooler heads prevailed and the umpire convinced Gimenez and Terry Francona that the inning was over. On the one hand, I appreciate the heads up play. It’s what the Guardians are all about. At the same time, Gimenez ought to know the count.
  • I’m honestly a little worried about Gimenez. He was 0/8 with six strikeouts in the series. He’s hit .154 and struck out on a staggering 40% of his at bats since the Guardians clinched. I am unsure if he is playing hurt, has perhaps hit a wall having never played this many games in a season before or if pitchers are pitching him more effectively. Regardless, he is just as important to the Guardians offense as Ramirez is. I mentioned needing Rosario’s contribution’s yesterday. They are going to need Gimmy too.
  • All of the Guardians pitching saved them on Saturday, but Sam Hentges deserves a special shout out. I sensed a little concern on the interwebs about him coming back out for a third inning and for a moment that seemed well-founded. Hentges dug deep though and struck out both Francisco Mejia and Jose Siri with men on the corners and one out. Hentges is a former starter and I can recall at least one more game this year where he pitched in three separate innings, but I believe this is the only time all season he pitched three full innings. Incredibly gutsy performance. He struck out Mejia and Siri on just six pitches. Talk about locking in! His curve-ball was nearly untouchable. Batters swung at 11 of them and missed seven times including on both of those game-deciding strikeouts.

The Outcome and Aftermath

  • Honestly, after fourteen and a half innings of work, this game was over so fast. We’re just coming back from commercial break and the 2nd pitch of the inning is over the fence for the win. I will say, I feel like the Rays didn’t respect Oscar Gonzalez enough. I noticed in both games that their pitchers got away with some balls in the middle of the plate against him that he fouled off. To his credit, he was the only hitter on either side with a multi-hit day in Game 2 and he finally made them pay and in the most major way possible. What a thrill that must have been. My reaction at home was incredible. Ever seen a grown man jump off the couch and start fist pumping as hard as he can but silently because his night-shift working wife fell asleep six innings ago? That was me.
  • Alright. Time for the elephant in the room. Corey. You were an integral part of this organization through one of the best periods in its lengthy history. You were and continue to be the consummate professional. You didn’t leave on your own volition and as a fan of this team I have fond memories of your time here and wish you nothing but the best. Truthfully. I am sorry we had to do that to you, old friend… But, you shouldn’t have left that cutter in the middle of the plate. Sorry for the collateral damage. Better luck next year.
  • That goes for Yandy, Harold, Mejia and Armstrong too. You guys were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s weird how so many of you are together and all contributing to the Rays now. It’s almost like these two organizations are really comparable and similar.
  • So, what’s next? A trip to Yankee Stadium, of course. New York is legitimately one of the two teams that, if I am being objective, may be a better ball-club than Cleveland in the American League. They will present a completely different challenge than the Rays in that they hit a lot of home runs. And it’s not just Aaron Judge either. Anthony Rizzo (we meet again), Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres and Josh Donaldson are all likely also to hit in the top-five spots in the order and can take you deep.
  • The Yankees have not yet named a starter for Game 1, but it will either be ace Gerrit Cole or breakout star lefty Nestor Cortes most likely. Cal Quantrill is likely to get the ball for Cleveland. Quantrill is a gamer and a good pitcher in his own right, but I think the Yankees have an advantage in Game 1. They get the benefit of the bye round and get to set up their rotation any way they want.
  • I think for the Guardians to be successful in this series, they have to find success offensively against New York’s starters. The Yankees bullpen is the best in baseball at limiting home runs and their team is also one of the best fielding teams in the game. So if it’s harder than ever for the Guards to scratch a long-ball or two against the pen and their usual ball-in-play hi-jinks are also limited by strong fielding, then they are going to have to make hay vs. the New York starters.
  • Let’s end with a prediction again, but remember, I am being objective. Yankees win Game 1, 4-2 in New York, but there is a lot of baseball yet to be played.

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