The Guards win an Óscar

Óscar González

Óscar Gonzáles about to send the Guardians to an AL division series . . . but did it have to be against a former Cleveland pitcher who’d served them long and well?

A Guardian kid leading off the longest scoreless game in the bottom of the fifteenth. Facing a former Guardian pitcher. The second pitch of the plate appearance disappearing and taking the Rays’ season with it.

One of seventeen to make major league debuts with the Guards this season, Óscar González hit eleven home runs on the way here. Now, he hit the most important one of his 24-year-old life Saturday afternoon to finish the Guardians’ shove of the Rays to one side in a two-game American League wild card sweep of opposites.

The whippersnappers upended their elders (the Rays’ average starting lineup age : 27; the Guards: 24) without caring how long it might take. If they could do it in a comparative Game One blink, sure. If they needed fifteen innings and shy of five hours to do it, neither they nor the sellout Progressive Field home crowd cared, either.

They made very short work (as in two hours and change) of the Rays in Game One. Then, they and the Rays threw the pitching kitchen sink at each other, just about, before Game Two reached the bottom of the fifteenth and Corey Kluber, former Guardian when they were still the Indians, went to work for a second inning’s relief.

It was his first relief gig in nine years. It turned out to be his last, thus far. And it wouldn’t be unfair to ponder whether Kluber might be beginning to think that someone, somewhere, placed a postseason hex upon his 36-year-old head. This was his fourth postseason tour that ended with him on the wrong side in elimination games in which he either started or appeared at all.

The last time Kluber turned up in the postseason, he wore Cleveland fatigues in 2018 and was bushwhacked by the Astros in the first of a three-game Houston division series sweep then, thanks to a fourth-inning leadoff bomb (Alex Bregman) and an RBI single, then back-to-back fifth inning-opening bombs (George Springer, Jose Altuve).

A year before that, Kluber faced the Yankees to decide another AL division series. The Yankees made shorter work of him then, with a third-inning two-run homer (Didi Gregorius) and four straight singles the final two of which plated a run each with one out in the fifth, en route the Yankees taking it in five.

A year before that, Kluber’s and the Indians’ World Series ended dramatically in that 8-7, late-rain disrupted Cubs win after a back and forth that might have tempted God Himself to proclaim a tie for the two then-longest World Series title droughts in the Show. And yet again Kluber started but was stripped of four runs that only began with Dexter Fowler sending the first-ever Game Seven-opening home run over the center field fence.

The two-time American League Cy Young Award winner has since struggled through injury-disrupted seasons in stops with the Rangers and the Yankees before spending 2022 working his way back to respectability with a respectable-enough 3.57 fielding-independent pitching rate.

But with one swing on a slightly-hanging cutter on 1-0, González sent Kluber’s newfound respectability and the end of the Rays’ fourth annual postseason trip in a row into the left field seats. He also sent Progressive Field nuclear while sending his young Guards to a division series date with the Yankees.

All season long the Guards’ rookie guard lifted heaviest carrying them to the American League Central title. The only question entering the wild card set was whether it’d be one of the kids or one of the few elders who’d get the big job done for them. Not that manager Terry Francona cared less, of courseI don’t think by that point we cared,” manager Terry Francona said.

“It could have been one of the old guys,” Francona said postgame after González’s blast. “We didn’t care. We’re not biased. I was happy that he hit it.”

“I flipped on the Guardians and game,” tweeted MLB Network researche Jessica Brand, “and first pitch Óscar González goes deep. I’m not sure I want that kind of power. Was kind of secretly relishing the goose egg farm.”

Well, somebody had to scramble those eggs sooner or later. For the longest time it looked as though neither side was necessarily that anxious to do anything other than pin the opposing lineups’ ears behind their heads and become human Electroluxes in the field.

Guardians pitching kept the Rays to six hits and Rays pitching kept the Guards to five. The Rays and the Guards used eight pitchers each, and the Guards blew a shot at smashing the scoreless tie a full game’s worth before González finally struck.

Myles Straw (who promptly stole second) and Rookie of the Year candidate Steven Kwan were handed back-to-back walks by Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks—relieving starter Tyler Glasnow—to open the bottom of the sixth. Somewhat tough on the Guards this year, Fairbanks unintentionally handed them a break when he called Rays manager Kevin Cash and a team trainer out to the mound.

“I can’t feel my hand,” Fairbanks is said to have told Cash. The team subsequently said the righthander’s index finger went numb for unknown reasons in the moment. Exit Fairbanks, enter Jason Adam, and ducks on the pond at once when Adam plunked last year’s Atlanta postseason hero Eddie Rosario on the first pitch.

Enter José Ramírez, the Guards’ All-Star third baseman. Exit Ramírez on strikes almost at once. And exit the Guards for the side when Josh Naylor grounded into a step-and-throw double play.

Ramirez more than made up for it in the twelfth, when he backhanded Manuel Margot’s hard hopper behind the pad, the momentum pulling him into foul territory, then whipped a long, low throw for which Naylor at first had to stretch to scoop, and he kept just enough of his foot on the pad to secure the out. The Rays challenged the play but lost.

Heavy sigh of relief from one end of Progressive to the other.

González might have had the most privately embarrassing moment of the night when his belt broke while sliding in the seventh. Lucky for him that first base coach Sandy Alomar, Jr. had a belt to spare. And lucky for the Guardians that González had a belt to spare opening the fifteenth inning.

But did it have to be against a Kluber who’d pitched long enough and well enough for Cleveland and its long-enough-deprived fans? A Kluber who’d given them everything he’d had, came up short, then came up injured enough to put paid to his Lake Erie days?

This is the guy who missed all 2019 after an arm fracture plus an abdomninal injury, had his 2020 option exercised by the then-Indians on Halloween 2019, then was traded to the Rangers a month and a half later in a delayed but somewhat shameful trick-or-treat. Then, Kluber returned in July 2020 as the pan-damn-ically delayed season began and lasted on inning before shoulder tightness proved a torn teres major muscle.

That sent him to the injured list and, in due course, to free agency, where he signed for a year with the Yankees for 2021, started a return to respectability including a no-hitter against the Rangers themselves, then lost another two months with another shoulder injury.

Kluber became a free agent again, signed with the Rays this year, and all seemed as right in his 36-year-old pitching world as he and anyone had a right to expect. He’s hardly the first to return to a postseason against one of his former teams, but he may be close to the top three for heartbreaks in such returns.

Those two Cy Young awards can’t help heal this one. And Cleveland cynics might amuse themselves thinking Kluber sent their team forward in their first year under a new name.

To such cynics, say only, “Don’t go there.” A franchise riddled with its own actual or alleged curses doesn’t need a Kluber Curse to throttle their exuberant and talented kid corps now. It would only destroy the magnitude of what González did Saturday afternoon, whether he did it against Corey Kluber or Clark Kent.

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