Honestly. It’s perfectly fine to say this feeling sucks. Even when your team wasn’t supposed to go this far, wasn’t favored to win this series, had the Evil Empire with the home run king and 99 wins darting your dugout looks from across the field, this still sucks. It’s supposed to. Even in Cinderella stories and teams that beat the odds, there’s nothing worse in sports than losing a playoff series – especially one that you took to the penultimate game.
There’s time to scream and complain about the managerial decisions from Terry Francona. Why start Aaron Civale? Why go to Eli Morgan in Game 4 out of the bullpen? Why put Bo Naylor on the playoff roster if you’re never going to use him? There’s plenty of time to question the replay decisions of Game 4, and the lack of utilizing replay in Game 5. Hindsight is always 20/20, and it’s much harder to excuse decisions that went awry from your couch at home than it is from a plane heading to Houston, Texas.
But this season shouldn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth, nor should it sting as long as the previous playoff losses and bad regular seasons have. The Cleveland Guardians didn’t underachieve and miss the playoffs, they didn’t overachieve and underperform in October. For once (honestly since 2016), the Guardians out-performed expectations and got to a place close to where no one predicted them to be.
Think back to Opening Day, a 3-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals. No offense, great pitching from Triston Mckenzie and Yu Chang at second base. Andrés Giménez was at shortstop, but we weren’t sure if he was going to make a leap or end up in Triple-A midway through the season again. Franmil Reyes and Bobby Bradley provided the team some pop, but both hitters went a combined 1-for-6. There was optimism surrounding the team solely because it was going to be young and scrappy, and a large crop of prospects Cleveland fans had been waiting for was finally knocking on the door. Oscar Gonzalez, who would end up with two game-winning hits in the playoffs, trotted out a few days later in an Akron RubberDucks uniform.
The chances of making the playoffs stood below 10% in every projection. The Guardians were going to be frisky at best and a glorified Triple-A team at worst. The tides were turning on a rebuild, but they were probably at least two years away from winning the AL Central, and even further away from making noise in the playoffs.
Instead, this young group weeded out guys who didn’t belong – Chang, Ernie Clement, Bradley, Reyes, Logan Allen – and stuck together. They didn’t care what the outside noise was; Francona made that clear throughout the ALDS. They went out each day and played competitive, fun baseball. They got on base consistently. They stole second, then third. They blooped hits and hustled out infield dribblers. No matter what it took, they found a way to win.
They turned the tides on a divided fan base, half of which was angered over the name change. Maybe only 11,000 people trekked out to Progressive Field, but they were going to put on an absolute show for them. They played the Spongebob Squarepants theme song and had child-like smiles draped across their faces when something went well. They played their brand of baseball, without a care in the world.
The 2022 iteration of the Guardians are special. The statistics are going to stand as an outlier for a long time: 17 players making major-league debuts, the youngest team in baseball. Nonetheless, with a Hall-of-Fame manager at the helm, they stormed through the regular season to 92 wins. A team that once sat five games below .500 in May welcomed the Tampa Bay Rays to their stadium for the wild-card round.
Then, after a 15-inning, one-score game and a masterpiece from Shane Bieber, they moved on. The magic didn’t end there, though. Goliath entered the arena against David. With the odds stacked against them, and national pundits outwardly saying MLB would appreciate a New York Yankees’ win, the Guardians barreled their way to a deciding Game 5. They pushed Goliath to the brink, sending the city into a frenzy after Gonzalez’s walk-off hit in Game 3. Goliath wins most of the time, but David was damn close this series.
So yes, this sucks. Sit with this feeling and remember it. Stew in your anger at losing to the damn Yankees again, another year without a World Series ring, 1948 one year further away. Then remember what this team did, despite all the odds, despite the payroll, the youth, the better teams on paper. Remember Josh Naylor’s wild hair and Gonzalez willing a home run, then a single, to win two games. Remember Dr. Sticks, McKenzie bursting onto the national scene after years of anticipation.
This sucks, but damn was it fun, and we’re just getting started.