Guardians’ statement sweep crumbles White Sox playoff hopes

CHICAGO — The AL Central division race is all but over.

The Guardians knew they had a critical week ahead — one that could either make or break their playoff hopes. It started with a makeup game against the White Sox last Thursday that Cleveland dropped. But when the Twins came to town for a five-game series over the weekend, the Guardians made a statement, taking four of five matchups.

But Cleveland still had a three-game set against the White Sox in Chicago looming. The team knew it had little room for error. If the Guardians wanted to assure they’d see the postseason in 2022, they had to take at least one win at Guaranteed Rate Field. Not only did Cleveland do that, but after Thursday’s 4-2 victory over Chicago, the Guardians completed the three-game sweep, lowering their magic number to five, as the White Sox fell to seven games back.

“This was a big series, coming here and making a statement,” Guardians starter Shane Bieber said. “Being able to kind of just sense the feeling with our team, but with the other team as well, kind of put the foot on the neck and try to end it. I thought we did a good job of that.”

The Guardians have hit their stride at the right time. Thanks to 7 2/3 strong innings from Bieber and multihit efforts from Andrés Giménez and Josh Naylor, the Guardians have now won 15 of their last 18 contests. They’ve also taken 12 of 19 matchups against the White Sox this season.

“I think team chemistry, man,” Guardians reliever Trevor Stephan said, when asked what’s led to this recent stretch of success. “We went through ups and downs and this is the time of year when it matters the most, and I think this team’s got a lot of fight and pull together at the right time.”

The past three games have been the perfect representation of how the Guardians have found their own scrappy ways of winning games this season. First, the team has relied on stellar pitching. During this series, Cleveland walked a total of one batter (including the 11-inning game on Tuesday) by Aaron Civale in his first start back from the injured list in the series opener. After that, no other pitcher — starter or reliever, which included 11 more arms — issued a free pass.

“Really happy about that,” Bieber said. “I didn’t know that was a stat, but it’s a good one.”

Then, plays like the first inning on Thursday, when Giménez laid down a two-out bunt to score José Ramírez — who had gone first to third on a Naylor single — on an impromptu safety squeeze that epitomizes how this offense has been run all season long.

“I think trying to pitch against this kind of offense that just wears you down, grinds out ABs, takes the extra base — how many times did we go first to third this series?” Stephan said. “Honestly, watching from the bullpen, it’s a great view, but it was fun. We just took extra bases, made them pay for everything. It’s fun to watch.”

It’s not always the flashiest style of play, but the Guardians have learned it’s certainly the most effective for this young, inexperienced team. It’s a 28-man roster that has just four players who are at least 30 years old, but as skipper Terry Francona has said all season, just because his team is young doesn’t mean it can’t make a postseason run. Now, Cleveland has essentially guaranteed a chance to prove him right.

“It’s honestly a new experience to a lot of us in here, so the feeling obviously is a lot,” Stephan said. “Getting to play with everybody out here and just try to win the division, it’s been an experience for sure. It’s a lot of fun.”

The Guardians could clinch the division as early as Sunday in Texas, but it still seems more probable that a celebration would happen at Progressive Field when the team returns home for the rest of the regular season, beginning on Tuesday. Regardless, Cleveland knows that the division is in its hands and it’s ready to show that the underdog who wasn’t expected to be successful this season can keep winning.

“Most importantly, we’re proving that we can play,” Giménez said, through team interpreter Agustin Rivero, “and it’s a group of young players that are excited to play and compete.”