With just over 50 games remaining, the Guardians' playoff odds are the best they've been so far in 2022. And their excellence in extra-inning games this year is a major reason why.
The Guardians defeated the Detroit Tigers 4-3 in 10 innings Thursday, completing the sweep and extending their winning streak to five games. At 59-52, the win gave the Guardians a 1.5-game lead over the Minnesota Twins (57-53) with 51 games to go.
It also brought the Guardians' projected odds to win the division to 44.7 percent, according to FanGraphs, which leads the Twins (35.5) and Chicago White Sox (19.8). The Guardians' odds to make the playoffs rose to 58.3 percent, the highest point it has reached in 2022.
In a very winnable division that includes the Twins, who haven't quite clicked all year but did make several pitching additions at the deadline, and the White Sox, who simply can't seem to stay healthy despite a talented young group of players, the Guardians continue to force the issue and put themselves in contention despite being the youngest team in baseball.
One key aspect of the Guardians' placement in first as the final stretch of the season draws near has been their success with the extra-innings format that puts a runner on second base to begin each inning. With Thursday's victory, the Guardians improved to 9-2 in extra-inning games, the best record in the American League by a wide margin.
Only the San Diego Padres (10-3) have more extra-inning wins and only the New York Mets (9-1) have a better winning percentage. As the Guardians race for a playoff spot in the American League, they have been head and shoulders above the rest in that regard.
There are a few elements that explain this. One, the less quantifiable one, is something manager Terry Francona has repeated all season. The players simply believe they're going to win every night, regardless of any deficit.
"I don't know, but I think there's something to be said for not putting your head down when things don't go right," Francona told reporters in Detroit. "I also think our bullpen gives us a chance. I don't have a good answer, I wish we didn't get to extra innings, but they keep playing. That's a good characteristic."
Another key aspect is the Guardians put the ball in play more than any team in baseball. And when a runner is placed on second base to begin the inning, getting that run home is imperative. And no team has been as good at avoiding the nightmare three-strikeout inning that leaves the runner stranded and gives the opponent a massive advantage than the Guardians.
The Guardians' 80.8 percent contact rate is the highest in baseball. They're first in both contact rate in the zone (87.8 percent) and outside the zone (70.9). And who has the lowest swinging strike rate? The Guardians, at nine percent. In Thursday's win, Oscar Gonzalez came up with the go-ahead hit that the Tigers couldn't replicate.
"I think obviously we've got a lot of guys in the lineup who are very good at getting guys over, getting guys in," reliever Bryan Shaw told reporters in Detroit. "We're not a team that's hitting all the home runs, We get base hit after base hit, doubles, we do the little things on offense to get guys in. We put a guy on second, we're really good at getting that guy in because of that."
And the final element is the Guardians have had an above-average bullpen, but in particular they can deploy Emmanuel Clase, one of the game's elite relievers. This extra-innings format puts a little more value on the elite pitchers who can best strand that free runner at second base.
Clase has been a key component to the Guardians' extra-inning success, but it hasn't just been him — he was unavailable on Thursday, for example, and the save fell to Shaw. But having Clase and his triple-digit cutter lurking any time the game goes to extras is a good feeling for the Guardians.
"Normally in extra innings, Clase comes in and it's close, and you don't really get a hit off of him ever," Shaw said. "These guys have only gotten better the last two years that I've watched all the guys pitch. Clase, last year he was younger, just throwing the ball. He's starting to learn his finger pressure, he's starting to learn to command better, he's starting to become an elite pitcher. … He's adding things to his repertoire and it's gonna be ridiculous. You've got all these guys that have gotten better in the last two years and the experience has made them that much better."
Ryan Lewis can be reached at email@example.com. Read more about the Guardians at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cleveland-guardians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Guardians playoff chances at season-high