Guardians stay in contention after defeating sub-500 teams

CLEVELAND — It’s not quite halfway through June, but if the Guardians wanted to prove they can still be contenders this season, they needed to take advantage of the last two weeks of sub-.500 opponents. And that’s exactly what they did.

The Guardians locked up their 10th win in their last 13 games with a 6-3 victory over the A’s on Sunday afternoon at Progressive Field in their traditional scrappy, hustle-first manner. It marked Cleveland’s fourth straight series win, outscoring its opponents 67-44 in that span despite allowing 10 runs in Saturday’s loss.

“We’re playing with a really good amount of energy,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “It’s a fun way to play, but it’s not the easiest to do it every day. … We have guys that are pretty fast and willing to get down the line, and sometimes we run people into mistakes and it helps us.”

Cleveland is still searching for its identity as more and more young prospects keep getting an opportunity to perform at the big league level. But from the first day of Spring Training, the Guardians have been adamant that their youth will not be an excuse for any mistakes made along the way, and it certainly won’t stop them from striving to be a playoff contender again this year.

The first step is to prove that they have a fighting chance to make the postseason by simply beating teams with losing records. Cleveland kicked off the month of June with a three-game sweep of the Royals (20-38) before taking two of three against the Orioles (25-35) and Rangers (27-31) and three of four against the A’s (21) -41). After Sunday’s win, the Guardians were tied for the third Wild Card under the new postseason format.

“It was huge,” Guardians center fielder Myles Straw said. “We talked about it. We have a lot of teams probably below .500 and we really need to win against those guys. It’s not gonna get any easier from this point, so try to just take advantage of that and win as many games as possible. We’re playing pretty good baseball, so it feels pretty good right now.”

The second step will be a little more difficult than the first. The Guardians have one more series against a sub-.500 team (Rockies) before a daunting stretch teams against that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today: the Dodgers, Twins, Red Sox, Twins (again) and Yankees. As crucial as it is to take advantage of the easier parts of their schedule, it’s going to be even more essential for the Guardians to prove that they can compete with (and beat) winning teams.

How can they make sure this success continues throughout the upcoming road trip and beyond? Well, José Ramírez will be a big factor.

“He’s the most important player in baseball,” Guardians starter Cal Quantrill said. “There’s a lot of great players. He makes the biggest difference on any given team in baseball right now.”

The Guardians knew coming into the year that Ramírez would need to be the spark plug of the offense once again and, as Quantrill alluded to, he’s seamlessly taken on that role as expected. Yet somehow, he’s finding a way to exceed the high bar that had been set for him — he leads the Majors in RBIs (59), while having just one fewer homer (16) than strikeouts (17). Not to mention the fact that he tied the record for most extra-base hits (37) in a player’s first 56 games of a season in club history with a two-run double in the first inning on Sunday.

“He helps manufacture, it feels like, 75% plus of our runs,” Quantrill said. “I think he helps other hitters. It would be hard to cover everything he’s doing well this year. Quite honestly.”

A roster that’s desperately in need of veteran guidance can solely be dependent on Ramírez’s lead-by-example style.

“He’s just a really, really good player,” A’s manager Mark Kotsay said. “Every facet of the game, he’s got this intensity about him, but yet he looks so relaxed. You’d love to have a leader like that.”

As long as Ramírez is able to set the tone for the rest of the lineup, the bats have shown that they can follow his lead — the Guardians walked it off Friday night after Ramírez led off the inning with a homer. But can he continue to provide like this all season long? If history has taught us anything, it wouldn’t be surprising if that answer is, “yes.”

“He means everything to us,” Straw said. “He’s just a perfect example of how to play the game the right way and he takes advantage of every opportunity he gets. … He’s a big reason why we are where we are today. Just let him keep doing those things.”

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