As Guardians scuffle, Emmanuel Clase makes good on team's long-term investment in him

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Not entirely unlike the fireworks set off all around the country this weekend and Monday night, the Guardians had a meteoric rise to first place in the division, but in a flash, that momentum quickly faded.

The Guardians went 17-4 in a 21-game stretch between May 30 and June 22, which was enough, for one night, to take sole possession of first place in the American League Central. But since that night, the Guardians (40-38) have been more fizzle than sizzle, losing 11 of their past 15, including both games in Monday's doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers.

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The reasons for the reversal in fortune have been many. Jose Ramirez, once again building a case to be a Most Valuable Player finalist and the key component in the 16-4 stretch, has hit a skid, hitting just .192 with a .584 OPS in the past week entering Monday. The last two-week sample hasn't been much better (.235, .639). Ramirez recently missed a couple games dealing with a thumb injury. For the season, Ramirez is third in the American League in fWAR with 3.9, trailing only Rafael Devers and Aaron Judge.

Guardians closer Emmanuel Clase leads the American League with 19 saves.
Guardians closer Emmanuel Clase leads the American League with 19 saves.

The bullpen has also been taxed to a significant degree with the Guardians having to play three doubleheaders and nine games overall in six days. That has led to a 'fluid' roster situation, as manager Terry Francona termed it, while the team attempts to manage workloads while trying to keep pace in the American League postseason race.

It led to Kirk McCarty needing to again start against the first-place New York Yankees during Monday's doubleheader. He was then designated for assignment when the team needed to add another pitcher to the mix to get through Monday's doubleheader.

"Getting through that stretch with doubleheaders: It’s difficult, but it’s the major leagues and kind of it is what it is," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "We can’t control the weather and situations that got us to this point. Going out and trying to be aggressive, trying to attack.

"Most importantly, really paying attention to our daily work and our preparation to not overdo that. I think our main goal is No. 1 to go out and compete the best we can each day and at the same time not put anyone at risk, have guys available to pitch in the situations we need them to pitch in when the game’s favorable towards us. Just really working hard to keep everyone available."

Hoping to contend with the youngest roster in baseball is something the Guardians knew would come with speed bumps and "hiccups" along the way, as Francona noted multiple times throughout the season. The Guardians are trying to see how far they can "push" in 2022 with a young roster, but a few spots have kept those playoff dreams afloat.

That includes closer Emmanuel Clase, who pitched in one of the biggest moments of the season in Sunday's 2-0 win over the Yankees.

Emmanuel Clase cam up big against the Yankees on Sunday

A walk and an error brought Aaron Judge, arguably the MVP frontrunner in the AL as the season nears the midway point, to the plate as the potential go-ahead run. It generated a matchup with one of the game's most electric pitchers against one of its most dangerous hitters. Clase and Judge battled to a full count before Clase walked Judge on a slider in the dirt that loaded the bases.

Clase then included the game-winning groundout to convert the save and avoid the sweep.

"He's a great hitter, but I feel like I'm a good pitcher too. So that's my mindset and it's just let's compete … let's see what happens," Clase said through a team translator. "I was able to execute it. He ended up walking but I was able to execute the pitches in the plan that we had."

Clase, acquired in the Corey Kluber trade with the Texas Rangers in what now looks like a truly one-sided deal, has been among the game's best relievers in 2022.

In 34⅓ innings, Clase has posted a 1.31 ERA, 1.86 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, meaning what a pitcher's ERA should be), 37 strikeouts and 19 saves, which leads the American League. He is on pace to just about repeat his breakout 2021, when he finished fifth in AL Rookie of the Year voting and had a 1.29 ERA, 2.11 FIP and 74 strikeouts in 69⅔ innings.

A major factor in that breakout wasn't his highlight-reel 101-mph cutter but the improvement of his slider, which helped to keep hitters from keying in on his triple-digit heat. The slider has again been key in 2022, as he's now throwing it 34 percent of the time, slightly up from 30 percent a year ago.

The cutter gets gets the crowd reactions when they read the radar gun on the scoreboard. But the slider has been key to Clase emerging as one of baseball's best weapons at the end of the Guardians bullpen.

"I really think the key is his slider," Willis said. "Obviously you have to respect the velocity of his [cutter], it’s 99 to 102. So there’s some urgency for hitters to get to that pitch and just his ability to locate his slider, it has ridiculous movement and ridiculous profile, but almost like a change-up as well. Even though it’s 93 mph, it’s working off that 100 mph. So I think the slider is really the most important ingredient of his success."

Clase's velocity isn't an outlier, since the league is now filled with flame-throwing relievers. But his ability to limit walks — six in 34⅓ innings this year and 16 in 69⅔ innings in 2021 — has offered a rare combination. It's one that has kept the Guardians' contention hopes alive.

"We just played the Twins, they have the guy [Jhoan] Duran, he averages like 101," Willis said. "He throws a split 97-98 and a curveball 94. He's gotta sleep really well when he goes to bed at night, right? So yeah, it's special when you do see that. I think more than anything else you don't see guys command and throw strikes with a 100 mph fastball like Emmanuel does."

Clase is on a potential path to the 2022 All-Star Game in Los Angeles later this month. And at 24 years old, he's a key part of the Guardians' long-term future, something that was made clear when he was signed to an extension that can keep him in Cleveland through 2028. He's a young pitcher in a youthful clubhouse. But he's been as reliable as any veteran.

"Well, first of all, you got to have pretty good stuff. But last year we saw a couple instances – a couple – where maybe things got a little quick like they do with young players," Francona said. "Now, he’s got some opportunities under his belt and kind of pitches like a veteran even though he’s a young kid.”

Guardians outfielder-first baseman Josh Naylor reacts to being in pain after his at-bat in the seventh inning of the first game of Monday's doubleheader in Detroit. Naylor did not play in the second game and was to be evaluated Tuesday. [Paul Sancya/Associated Press]
Guardians outfielder-first baseman Josh Naylor reacts to being in pain after his at-bat in the seventh inning of the first game of Monday's doubleheader in Detroit. Naylor did not play in the second game and was to be evaluated Tuesday. [Paul Sancya/Associated Press]

Josh Naylor removed with back spasms, Gabriel Arias optioned to Triple-A

NaIn the first game of Monday's doubleheader, Guardians outfielder Josh Naylor hit a home run, which was his third in the past five games. But he was removed in the seventh with what the team later termed back spasms. An update is expected Tuesday. Naylor didn't appear in the second game of the doubleheader.

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On Monday, the team also optioned Alex Young to Triple-A, though he remained in Detroit as the 27th man for the doubleheader. Oscar Mercado, who was re-claimed over the weekend, was added to the roster. To make room, infielder Gabriel Arias was optioned back to Triple-A Columbus.

It's the kind of roster shuffling that comes with having to play nine games in six days.

Ryan Lewis can be reached at rlewis@thebeaconjournal.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: Guardians closer Emmanuel Clase continues to slam doors shut