ARLINGTON, Texas – A sturdy pair of goggles was mandatory attire Sunday in Cleveland's clubhouse, where impromptu showers of Champagne and beer broke out inside a thick haze of cigar smoke.
The Guardians, baseball's youngest team, finished an unexpected run to the top of the AL Central.
Rookie Steven Kwan hit a grand slam and drove in a season-high five runs as the Guardians clinched a division championship no one thought possible six months ago with a 10-4 win over the Texas Rangers.
When catcher Luke Maile squeezed Josh Smith’s foul pop for the final out, the Guardians began celebrating a title that actually became official 15 minutes earlier following second-place Chicago's loss to the Detroit Tigers.
Tied for first on Sept. 4, the Guardians have won seven straight and ripped off 18 wins in 21 games to open a 10-game lead and run away with the division.
“This team’s good. We’re not just young. We’re pretty good," said starter Cal Quantrill, the club leader with 14 wins. "I don’t think anybody’s excited to face us right now. We’re playing our best baseball. We’re playing baseball the right way.”
This is Cleveland’s 11th Central title since the division’s inception in 1994 and its fourth in 10 years under manager Terry Francona, who battled health problems the past two seasons but has enjoyed this ride with a team that may have surprised early on but is now being viewed as a legitimate World Series threat.
“For what our guys did, and when you’re doing it with people that you absolutely care about and love and respect, it means a lot,” Francona said before his statement was interrupted by a bone-chilling dousing.
“I’m amazed by these guys,” said Chris Antonetti, the team’s president of baseball operations. “They came together and played the game the right way.”
This season wasn’t supposed to happen.
After dropping Indians as their nickname following the 2021 season, a move that rankled a sizable portion of Cleveland’s fan base, the Guardians did little to upgrade their roster in free agency as the front office decided 2022 would be devoted to seeing what it had.
As it turned out, Cleveland’s kids were more than all right.
Maybe no one more so than Kwan, a 25-year-old with a game way beyond his years. He made the roster in spring training and has been the Guardians’ pesky leadoff hitter from opening day, working pitchers into deep counts before slapping hits and becoming an annoyance on the base paths.
It was fitting that it was Kwan who led the way to Sunday's clinch.
“Help any team I was on whether it had been Triple-A or the majors,” Kwan said of his goals this season. "I think that helped me in college, travel ball, whatever. I know if I focus on helping the team and others, then everything will fall into place.”
Kwan’s slam in the eighth inning barely cleared the wall and bounced back into play. He wasn’t sure it out until signaled by first-base umpire Bruce Dreckman. He said his reaction was “black out.”
With bigger games ahead, Kwan wasn't ready to reflect on what he and his teammates have accomplished.
“I definitely want to keep my head down, keep it rolling.” he said. “Maybe in a superstitious kind of way don’t want to take my eyes off anything. Keep it going forward.”
The Guardians have defied the odds from the start and became the first team to win a division with at least 16 rookies making their major league debuts.
The season began with low expectations everywhere but inside Cleveland's clubhouse. Maybe is was naivete, but the Guardians believed they could be special and that's exactly what's happened.
“From Day One, they’ve come together,” Antonetti said. “You go around the clubhouse, the tone our veteran players set like José Ramírez, Amed Rosario, Shane Bieber, Austin Hedges. ‘Tito’ (Francona) said just find a way to help the team win.
“They embraced that mentality.”
The Guardians have done it with an offense that puts the ball in play, solid and often spectacular defense and a lights-out bullpen anchored by closer Emmanuel Clase (a big league-best 39 saves).
Cleveland strikes out less than any team in the majors and nobody goes from first to third better.
Amid the clubhouse chaos, Antonetti made a point to credit the 63-year-old Francona, who won two World Series with Boston and may have had his best season after dealing with serious medial issues.
“To think of what he’s overcome personally to get to this point,” Antonetti said. “This is a special moment for ‘Tito.’"
Guardians: Bieber (12-8, 2.81 ERA) will open a three-game series on Tuesday at home against Tampa Bay in a possible preview of a first-round postseason series. Bieber will face RHP Corey Kluber (10-9, 4.30), a two-time Cy Young winner during nine seasons in Cleveland.
Rangers: Play three games at Seattle beginning Tuesday. Texas hasn’t announced a starter for the opener to face LHP Robbie Ray (12-10, 3.60).
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