How the Guardians turned the AL Central race into a one-team sprint

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On the first day of spring training, Terry Francona called for a meeting with Jose Ramirez. That conversation between a manager and his star third baseman, way back in March, would set the tone for the surprising success of the youngest team in baseball -- a Cleveland Guardians club that is on the verge of winning the American League Central.

Francona asked the ultra-talented Ramirez to simply play hard and with passion throughout the upcoming season because the Guardians weren't exactly constructed to homer their way to the postseason.

"I told him, 'This is how we have to play, everyone follows your lead,'" Francona recalled while sitting in the visitor's dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago earlier this week. "And I said, 'If you don't do it, I can't ask a bunch of young guys to do it.'"

Ramirez was already known by his teammates to play 'with his hair on fire' and they have followed suit, specializing in a brand of baseball built around contact, running the bases and playing defense that is atypical in 2022.

The results have been near historic for a roster of players whose average age is just 26 years old. The Guardians are on track to become the youngest team in the wild-card era to not only make the postseason but also to win a division.

"I don't know if you can put an age on being competitive," Francona said.

And even before the team proved anything this season, Cleveland's brass knew one thing about its squad going into 2022: It was going to be full of opportunity for a group of talented young players.

"We made some deliberate choices, even going back to the offseason, to give some of these young players opportunities to go out and contribute," president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said. "To their credit, a lot of them have stepped forward and made a meaningful impact."

But as Francona says, no one has a 'crystal ball' and it came together faster than anyone could have expected. Except maybe the Guardians' star player himself.

"Those guys are very talented," Ramirez said through the team interpreter. "They won a lot in the minors so they know how to win. I'm not surprised by their performance this year."

Second baseman Andres Gimenez, shortstop Amed Rosario and left fielder Steven Kwan are three of those players who have become major contributors at a young age.

The two infielders came to Cleveland together in a blockbuster trade for Francisco Lindor, while Kwan was a little-known fifth-round pick in 2018. Batting leadoff, Kwan has set the table for a lineup that ranks 29th in home runs but has also struck out fewer times than any team in the majors.

"It's refreshing to see that kind of baseball," Kwan said. "It starts with Tito [Francona]. He felt if we had a chance, we had to play the game the right way. We've been taking that to heart."

Kwan called Francona the "GOAT" for his managing style. One of the 63-year-old veteran manager's best traits, according to those who know him best, is his ability to adapt a team to maximize its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses.

The young Guardians have learned winning baseball while dealing with the grind of a long season. It's not an easy task and Francona has prodded when the moment has called for it. Kwan recalled a time after a win over Minnesota.

"He called me into his office, which he normally doesn't do," Kwan said. "And he pulls up a video and it's a runner on first and I hit a single to right. The runner goes first to third and the right fielder sails the ball and I'm standing on first.

"He asks me why I didn't take second base? I told him I hadn't had a hit in while and I got to first and I was happy to be there. He was like 'No kid, that's not what we're about. If we're going to do this we're going to do it the right way.'

"That stayed with me."

Mixed in with those teachable moments, Cleveland's clubhouse has been filled with lively celebrations fueled by a handful of dramatic victories, including several huge come-from-behind wins and extra-inning affairs. Perhaps none defined Cleveland's season better than an early May thriller when the Guardians used a six-run ninth to pull even with the White Sox 8-8 before a three-run 11th sealed the deal. An emotional Josh Naylor hit home runs in both innings and it proved to the youth in Cleveland that they could go toe-to-toe with the reigning division winner.

Those kinds of victories began to pile up, including a 15-inning win last Saturday over Minnesota and another 11-inning one on Tuesday in Chicago. In fact, the Guardians beat up their division rivals during the entire season, combining to go 24-13 against their closest competitors and 12-4 in extra innings overall.

"Everyone is saying we're not supposed to be doing this," starter Shane Bieber said. "And maybe that was the story coming in early. But not now. It's a different brand of baseball, and we're enjoying playing it, and we're doing it really well."

Bieber smiled and nodded his head when Ramirez's name came up. Clubhouse conversations often lead back to the five-tool player.

"What I find so special and invaluable about him is the way he plays the game," Bieber said. "It's hard to put into words. For our superstar to play the way he does, with that infectious energy, and putting his body on the line and doing it every day, with the intent to win, he really sets the tone."

Ramirez is a first-to-third machine, yet another way he epitomizes the Guardians' unique brand of baseball. In their just completed series against the White Sox, Cleveland basically ran them out of contention for the division title.

"It might be a little frustrating for our opponents and when you have so many young guys watching him [Ramirez] hustle like that, they think, 'Why can't I do that?'" Bieber said.

They can and they have. Not surprisingly, the Guardians lead the league in going from first to third on a single. It's just one trait which has them poised for an October run. Cleveland has five players with 15 or more stolen bases, the most in baseball and the most for the franchise since 1919.

"They are young but they don't back down from challenges," Francona said. "All the things that we've tried to live by, they try to do it."

Shaw believes the foundation was set years ago while Cleveland was going through its last window of contention. It included a World Series appearance in 2016. Several current players were in the minors or entering the organization at the time -- and now are on the verge of getting their first chance to play in the postseason.

"Tito has been at the helm the entire run," Shaw said. "We were winning and everyone saw how it's done. Now it's happening again."