ARLINGTON, Texas — What seemed like a virtual impossibility when the year began has become a glorious reality.
The Cleveland Guardians, baseball's youngest team by a sizeable margin, have won the American League Central Division championship. They officially clinched the title Sunday afternoon when the Chicago White Sox lost 4-1 to the Detroit Tigers, and got to celebrate in style when they pounded the Texas Rangers 10-4.
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Remember, there was a realistic possibility this season wouldn't happen, as labor strife led to an owners lockout that delayed the season by about two weeks. Even after a deal was agreed to with the players, question marks scattered the shores of Lake Erie, whether they involved the future of the franchise's cornerstone, the lingering health issues of the manager, intriguing but unproven talent on the roster, or even the aftermath of the club changing its nickname following more than 100 years as the Indians.
Some of those questions were answered pretty early — José Ramírez signed the largest contract in team history and Terry Francona returned to the dugout to become the winningest manager in Cleveland history. Still, most didn't see the Guards as anything more than a longshot contender, a bunch that could maybe hang around late but with no real postseason aspirations.
Then, suddenly, the group with an average age of just 26 years old began to show its potential: Emmanuel Clase and Andrés Giménez were named All-Stars; Steven Kwan became a bona fide leadoff man and defensive wizard in left field; Josh Naylor stepped up as the team's spark plug with a penchant for clutch moments; Triston McKenzie emerged as a future ace of the rotation alongside Shane Bieber; even Oscar Gonzalez became a cult hero thanks to his timely hitting and popular walk-up song.
The Guardians hovered around .500 for most of the first half, but stayed in the race when the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox failed to separate themselves. Cleveland then got hot (forsaking others' predictions that they would "crumble"), taking a share of the division lead on Aug. 9 and never looking back. The most recent 18-3 stretch — including a road sweep of the second-place Sox — all but wrapped up first place before today's final blow.
Fittingly, it was Kwan who provided the knockout punch, belting his first career grand slam in the eighth inning to bust the game in Arlington wide open. The party pretty much began after that.
The division crown is Cleveland's first since a run of three straight from 2016-18, and the team will also return to the postseason for the first time since the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. The Guardians currently hold the third-best record of all AL division leaders, meaning under Major League Baseball's new playoff format, they would host the No. 3 wild-card team (currently the Seattle Mariners) for a best-of-three Wild Card Series beginning Oct. 7. All games would be played at Progressive Field.
Nine games remain in the regular season, all at home, before the Guardians begin their quest for their first World Series championship since the Indians won it all way back in 1948.