What you need to know about the Cleveland Guardians vs. Tampa Bay Rays AL Wild Card Series

Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona reacts during the first inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays Friday, July 29, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona reacts during the first inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays Friday, July 29, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Maybe it was karma. Maybe it was youthful enthusiasm. Maybe it was a wily veteran manager. Maybe it was the misfortune of the teams favored to win the American League Central Division. Whatever combination of any of those things and more that it took, the Guardians are in the playoffs as the champs of the AL Central.

In their first season as the Guardians in place of a seemingly cursed franchise dragging along the baggage of Chief Wahoo and and the pressure that led to a name change, suddenly everything fell into place. Karma? Maybe. Maybe not. But here the Guardians are in a year when no fewer than 17 players made their major league debuts.

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Many of those players, from Rookie of the Year candidate Steven Kwan to fellow outfielders Oscar Gonzalez, Will Benson and Will Brennan to catcher Bo Naylor (No. 17) to pitchers Cody Morris and Kirk McCarty, will continue to play major roles in the postseason, which begins Friday at Progressive Field in Game 1 of a Wild Card Series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Guardians were among the hottest teams, if not the hottest team, in baseball during the crucial month of September and left preseason favorites the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins in the dust on their way to the division title that was clinched with nine games left in the season.

Manager Terry Francona has to be at least the co-favorite for American League Manager of the Year after guiding a team that fielded the youngest roster in baseball through all the land mines that come with such a young team and getting the absolute most out of a Guardians team no one outside of the organization gave much of a chance to raise a division banner in 2022.

The young players listened to the wisdom imparted by Francona, trusted their talents and had a blast in the big leagues, helping a team led by veterans Jose Ramirez, Josh Naylor, Amed Rosario, Shane Bieber and Emmanuel Clase to reach for the stars.

They were seemingly undaunted by the pressure of a playoff push and now they will get to see how they can handle the pressure of a playoff series, or more.

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How did the Cleveland Guardians make the MLB playoffs?

The Guardians came into the season believing the strength of the team would be the starting pitchers. Former Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber anchored a rotation that included rising star Triston McKenzie, steady and dependable right-handers Cal Quantrill and Aaron Civale and talented but inconsistent Zach Plesac.

But Bieber struggled to replicate his Cy Young dominance, McKenzie and Quantrill took a while to find their grooves and Civale and Plesac struggled with performance and injuries.

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So instead of leading the way, the pitching staff was picked up by a youthful lineup that seemingly overachieved at every turn and a bullpen that eventually transformed from very good to arguably the best in baseball as the season evolved.

Along the way, Bieber found his form and pitched like an ace, McKenzie developed into a more than solid No. 2 and Quantrill established himself as the clear No. 3. Civale returned late in the season and pitched well and those who stepped in kept the ball rolling.

Plesac is back too, but expected to pitch out of the bullpen in the playoffs.

A new style of offense for the Cleveland Guardians

Kwan burst onto the scene with a record-setting start to his big-league career, fell into some expected rookie struggles and then proved himself not only as a serviceable offensive player but one who could be trusted to hit leadoff when Myles Straw slumped and was bumped to No. 9 in the order.

Kwan rarely strikes out and hits the ball to all fields. He can run and is an above average left fielder. His emergence was a huge lift to a team led by Ramirez, a perennial Most Valuable Player candidate who had another big year. But it was the offensive production of second baseman Andres Gimenez and shortstop Rosario, both acquired from the New York Mets in the Francisco Lindor trade, that helped to transform the Guardians into a dangerous offensive team despite a general lack of power. Gimenez was among the most valuable players in the league based on fWAR and Rosario gave the Guardians a consistent offensive presence all season.

The return to health of first baseman Josh Naylor added another dependable bat and all of a sudden the Guardians were a team that was never out of game with a penchant for late-inning rallies. Gonzalez was called up in May and made an immediate impact with a high batting average and eventually added some power as well. Benson and Brennan came later and had varying degrees of success but proved to be able contributors.

A dominant bullpen completes the picture for the Cleveland Guardians

Clase came to Cleveland in the Corey Kluber trade with the Texas Rangers, missed all of the 2020 season with a drug suspension and worked his way into the closer's role in 2021. In 2022, he worked his way to the top of the league among closers, deploying a 101-mph cutter that turned bats to sawdust.

Not only was Clase nearly unhittable, James Karinchak returned from an injury in the second half of the season and was lights out as a set-up man and sometimes closer. Trevor Stephan, Sam Hentges and Nick Sandlin helped to make any lead after the sixth inning seem safe and Eli Morgan and Enyel De Los Santos has stretches of outstanding work as well.

A new MLB postseason format

Major League Baseball added a third wild-card playoff team to each league for 2022 and subsequently provided a bye for the top two teams in each league. In the American League, that is the East Division champion New York Yankees and the West Division champion Houston Astros.

Another change came in the Wild Card Series. Formerly a one-game playoff, the new format turned the Wild Card Series into three-game series with the top seeded team hosting all three games.

That puts the No. 3 Guardians (as a result of winning their division) at home for a best-of-three against the No. 6 Tampa Bay Rays, starting with Game 1 on Friday. Game 2 will be Saturday and Game 3, if necessary, will be Sunday, all at Progressive Field.

If the Guardians win, they will play the Yankees in a best-of-five Division Series beginning in New York on Oct. 11.

Tampa Bay Rays' Wander Franco watches his two-run double off Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Trevor Richards during the fourth inning of a baseball game Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Tampa Bay Rays' Wander Franco watches his two-run double off Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Trevor Richards during the fourth inning of a baseball game Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

What to know about the Tampa Bay Rays

Managed by former Francona bench coach Kevin Cash, the Rays are no stranger to the postseason. The Rays have made the playoffs for four consecutive seasons and reached the World Series in 2020, losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Rays are led by budding superstar shortstop Wander Franco, 2020 playoff hero Randy Arozarena and former Cleveland third baseman Yandy Diaz.

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Shane McClanahan throws against the Houston Astros during the first inning of a baseball game Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Shane McClanahan throws against the Houston Astros during the first inning of a baseball game Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Pitching is the Rays' strength, led by Cy Young Award candidate Shane McClanahan, former Cleveland ace Corey Kluber, hard-throwing lefty Jeffrey Springs and former ace Tyler Glasnow, who recently returned from Tommy John surgery.

Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor (center) celebrates his game-winning, two-run home run in the 10th inning against the Minnesota Twins, June 29, 2022, in Cleveland
Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor (center) celebrates his game-winning, two-run home run in the 10th inning against the Minnesota Twins, June 29, 2022, in Cleveland

How to watch Cleveland Guardians in Wild Card Series

Game 1: 12:07 p.m. Friday, ESPN

Game 2: 12:07 p.m. Saturday, ESPN

Game 3: 4:07 p.m. or 7 p.m. Sunday (if necessary), ESPN

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Guardians vs. Tampa Bay Rays What to know