Not only are these Guardians eminently huggable, they play excellent baseball

As Yankees Yeti Aaron Judge chases the American League record for home runs and a Triple Crown, as the baseball world marvels at Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols' 700th career home run and as the Dodgers close in on one of the winningest regular seasons of this century, the game’s most interesting team clinched a division title Sunday afternoon.

The Cleveland Guardians beat the Texas Rangers 10-4 in Arlington, and the champagne flowed in the visitors’ clubhouse. The Guardians are not finished with their stretch run. They have nine game remaining, all at home, against Tampa Bay and Kansas City, but they are charging like a horse from the clouds. Which is what they are.

The Guardians closed to clinch the AL Central by winning nine of 10 and 18 of 21. In the wee hours of Monday morning, hundreds of fans stood in a cold rain to greet the Guardians when they landed at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport. It was their way of seeing what they, and everyone else, once could not imagine.

The Chicago White Sox were the prohibitive, preseason favorites to win the division. The Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers were chic, outlier picks. As for the Guardians, most experts picked them to finish fourth or fifth in the division, and would have picked them sixth if there were more than five teams.

There was also pessimism in Cleveland proper, and for good reason. Guardians ownership is, how shall we say … well, they’re thrifty. The Guardians’ opening-day payroll went from $134 million in 2019 to $51 million this year. They sell starting pitchers the way QVC moves air fryers.

How did this Guardians team, the youngest in the league, bury the White Sox?

The managers have something to do with it.

On Aug. 31, Chicago's Tony La Russa took a leave of absence for health reasons. Everybody hopes LaRussa, 77, gets better. That is first and foremost. But he did not invent the game. When interim manager Miguel Cairo took over, the Sox proceeded to win 13 of 18 games to propel themselves back into the AL Central race. Here’s what that says: The White Sox were, at the very least, indifferent to playing for La Russa, and they enjoyed getting after it for Cairo. Ultimately, they melted, and that had as much to do with Terry Francona’s relentless kids as anything else.

How do you like the new name now? It seems it carries some good karma. Like the the Guardians of Transportation statues on the Hope Memorial Bridge, this team is light, fast-moving traffic. Their hitters work the count and use the whole field. They’re mad-aggressive on the basepaths. They pressure, pressure, pressure and sometimes they dent their fenders. They just don’t stop.

In an era of the three true outcomes – home run, walk, strikeout – these Guardians are outliers. They don’t hit home runs (No. 29 in MLB) or draw bases on balls (No. 25) and they have the fewest strikeouts in the league.

The Guardians are in the top third in MLB in hits, batting average, sacrifice bunts, stolen bases (No. 3), sac flies (No. 1) and infield hits (No. 1). They’re throwbacks who play a game that previous generations can recognize, not unlike the 2015 Royals.

Their young pitchers are in MLB’s top eight or better in almost every statistical category, from ERA (No. 6) and saves (No. 40) to ERA+ and WHIP (No. 5). They’re not afraid to have the ball in play. Their defense is among the most efficient in the game.

The signing of third baseman Jose Ramirez in April will be remembered as a watershed moment. He is the superstar who wanted to stay, and he took a team-friendly contract.

Ramirez (.273, 28 homers, 117 RBIs) has set the tone like an MVP. At the top of the batting order, Steven Kwan is a template for the Guardians’ brand of contact hitting and breakneck baserunning. In the No. 6 hole, Andres Gimenez is a restart button and as clutch as they come. Starting pitchers Shane Bieber, Triston McKenzie and Cal Quantrill have eaten up innings. Closer Emmanuel Clase (39 saves, 1.46 ERA) is often unhittable.

They are among a raft of players whose individual performances have been stellar during a season when the Columbus shuttle has remained in constant motion. The organization has one of the deepest talent pools in baseball and the big-league roster will continue to shape and reshape itself in the years ahead.

To watch this team is to want to hug them, and a lot of that has to do with Francona, 63, who, after breaking the Curse of the Bambino in Boston, has now won his fourth division title in 10 years in Cleveland. Somehow, Tito remains razor-sharp as a manager, and as accessible and relatable as a human being, as he always has been.

It’s clear that he loves his lads, and they love playing for him.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Hail the Cleveland Guardians, winners of the American League Central