CLEVELAND (AP) — No stranger to October’s postseason pageantry and peril, Terry Francona feels the same heading into his 72nd playoff game as he did before his first 18 years ago.
“I’ll be scared to death,” Cleveland’s manager said Thursday, only half-joking. “That’ll never change.”
He’s counting on fearlessness from his Guardians.
Baseball’s youngest team, which used a base-to-base approach to overtake Minnesota and Chicago to win the AL Central running away, gets its first taste of the playoffs Friday when the Guardians open the best-of-three wild-card round against the Tampa Bay Rays.
This is unfamiliar territory for many of Cleveland’s players, most of whom were in the minor leagues during the strange 2020 season when the team, then known as the Indians, was eliminated in the first round by the New York Yankees.
Nothing has fazed the Guardians this season, and Game 1 starter Shane Bieber, who will oppose Tampa Bay ace Shane McClanahan, doesn’t expect his teammates to be rattled while stepping onto a larger stage.
“It seems that nothing has been too big or too small for us this year,” he said. “I really don’t expect too much of a change within the clubhouse or on the field.”
Cleveland and Tampa Bay played six times during the regular season, with the Guardians going 4-2. Last week, the teams met in a three-game series that were all decided by one run, with two games going to extra innings.
For the Rays, the postseason has become almost secondhand. Tampa Bay is making its fourth consecutive appearance, and those experiences can only help when every ball, strike and out becomes magnified.
Rays manager Kevin Cash, one of Francona’s closest friends, isn’t convinced his team’s familiarity playing fall ball gives his team a distinct advantage.
“Their guy has a lot more postseason experience than me,” Cash said with one of his many playful digs at Francona. “I think the culture Tito creates over there, whatever lack of experience they have, his players are going into this situation with a confident mindset.”
The Guardians’ belief began before opening day, and although they’ve become something of a surprise to outsiders, Cleveland’s players always felt they could compete with baseball’s big-spending, big-swinging teams.
Their offensive style goes against the grain of today’s game. It’s old-school by necessity with a premium on quality at-bats, making contact, advancing runners or stealing. It’s worked and the Guardians, who went an MLB-best 24-6 after Sept. 4, plan to stick with it.
“I wish we did hit more three-run homers,” Francona said. “But we have what we have, so rather than make excuses, we’re trying to find a way to win. You deal with what you have.”
The Rays know what dealing with the Guardians’ attack is like, and it’s not fun.
“When guys are constantly putting pressure on you by putting the ball in play, it presents challenges,” Cash said. “You’ve got to play really clean defensively when you’re not picking up strikeouts.”
Cash and Francona’s relationship dates to 2007, when Tampa Bay’s manager was a light-hitting catcher for the Red Sox.
Francona was always impressed by Cash’s clubhouse presence, even as a part-time player, and made him his bullpen coach in Cleveland for two seasons before he took over the Rays in 2015.
Their friendship is built on love, trust and some fear.
After getting to Progressive Field, Cash checks the desk drawers in his office in case Francona has planned a prank.
“He’s a child,” Cash joked. “Like a young toddler.”
On the serious side, Cash is thrilled Francona was able to make it through a full season after cutting the previous two short due to health issues.
“I’m glad he’s doing better,” Cash said. “He’s got so many people in the game that care about him that a lot of relationships probably got better because we were constantly checking on him.”
With a keen batting eye, and elite bat-to-ball skills, Guardians rookie Steven Kwan has become one of baseball’s best leadoff hitters.
He’s gained a reputation for lengthy at-bats and keeping pitchers guessing.
“He bunted on me, first pitch,” said Tampa’s left-hander, who has grown to appreciate Kwan’s all-around game.
“I love to appreciate the greatness in players that I get to compete against and watching him do his thing is pretty cool to see,” he said. “This game has gotten to where people are either hitting home runs or striking out, so to see him go up there and put together quality at-bat after quality at-bat is pretty cool.”