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What we learned about the Guardians in the Wild Card Series

The Cleveland pitching staff did excellent work to outlast Tampa Bay in this first playoff series.

MLB: Wild Card-Tampa Bay Rays at Cleveland Guardians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Major League Baseball postseason is one of the most exciting and unpredictable events in sports. The success of a 162-game season is defined by the outcome of a handful of games for a sport that openly mocks the usage of small sample sizes to justify conclusions about a player or a team.

This is a month-long ritual that every baseball fan enters willingly. There aren’t many clamors out there for a return to the pre-expansion era. The postseason was simply the World Series, with the best record in the American League and National League going straight off to the Fall Classic. The best team doesn’t always wins. Unlikely heroes emerge, and surprising outcomes can make you question how a specific area of a team could ever have been considered a point of strength or weakness.

However, what do you do when a postseason series, albeit a very short one, simply confirms all the beliefs you had about both teams heading into said series? Results are often used to justify narratives, but when those narratives are rooted in hard facts, proven over a full regular season of baseball, you simply cannot dismiss them.

The Cleveland Guardians and Tampa Bay Rays squared off in a series defined by elite pitching. Both of these teams and their rather small payrolls reached October baseball on the backs of extremely qualified pitching staffs. The Guardians, in particular, ended the year with the fourth-best ERA (3.47) and WHIP (1.16) in the American League.

Owning a qualified pitching staff will most likely get you in the playoffs, and it’s no surprise that the three teams ahead of the Guardians in both ERA and WHIP in the American League are the now-eliminated Rays, and the two powerhouses in the Astros and Yankees. However, there’s a bigger onus on the Guardians’ pitching staff to perform given that their offense is mediocre at best, bolstering a 99 wRC+ on the season. This is a team that relied heavily on manufacturing runs, finishing second to last in homers.

Over the course of those two games, the Guardians and Rays showcased why their pitching staffs were the point of strength for their teams, and why there were real question marks about their ability to hit in postseason baseball, when the level of pitching you’re facing goes up by a tier or two. Both teams combined for four runs over the course of almost 24 innings of play, and the second game entered the record books as the first one in postseason history to go past 14 innings with neither team able to score a run.

Top credit goes to Cleveland starters Shane Bieber and Triston McKenzie, who combined for 13.2 innings of one-run ball against Tampa between their starts.

Interestingly enough, in a postseason so far defined by its scoring coming via the long ball, all four runs in this series came via home runs, and by the thinnest of margins, the Guardians were able to outslug the Rays with a homer in each game, courtesy of Oscar Gonzalez and José Ramirez. Facing elite pitching, it becomes tougher and tougher to string together hits in playoff baseball, which helps explain the high percentage of runs via the long ball, and while it can be looked at as a surprise that it was the home run that helped the Guardians advance, it’s not like they slugged much in this series, doing absolutely nothing beyond a couple of homers.

It was the elite pitching that helped Terry Francona’s ballclub remain in the game long enough for the offense to muster something, anything, up. Now going up against the Yankees, the Guardians will need to up their game, and if they hope to scrape by in a series defined by long balls like they just did, well, it’s going to be a long series for Cleveland, facing the team that launched 254 home runs to lead all of baseball.