With a Bloop Instead of a Blast, Guardians’ Oscar Gonzalez Plays the Hero Again

Oscar Gonzalez
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — When the season began, 24-year-old Oscar Gonzalez was at Triple-A Columbus, waiting for a shot at the majors. Six months later, he’s Cleveland’s Mr. Clutch, the man who has collected game-winning hits in extra innings in two of the Guardians’ three postseason wins. Last Saturday, his walk-off home run in the 15th inning against the Rays ended a four-hour, 57-minute epic and clinched the Wild Card Series for the Guardians. On Friday afternoon, he continued his postseason heroics by driving in the go-ahead run in the 10th inning against the Yankees via a bloop single, helping the Guardians to a 4–2 victory in Game 2 that evened the Division Series at one apiece.

The Dominican-born Gonzalez, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound slugger with huge power and arm strength, hit 31 homers last year between Double-A and Triple-A but was notably absent from Eric Longenhagen’s Top 48 Guardians Prospects list due to an approach that he described to me as “literally the most aggressive swinger in the minors.” Not only was he additionally unranked by Baseball America and MLB Pipeline, but the Guardians didn’t even protect him on their 40-ma roster ahead of the Rule 5 draft last winter, and he went unselected. He debuted with the Guardians on May 26 and hit a robust .296/.327/.461 (122 wRC+) with 11 homers in 382 plate appearances, but his 3.9% walk rate and 48.4% chase rate — the latter mark the majors’ third-highest among players with at least 300 PA — jibed with Eric’s reservations.

“He has the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark, like he did the other day. But he also has the awareness to shorten up enough,” said manager Terry Francona afterward, referring first to Gonzalez’s series-winning drive and then to the 1–2 count in which he found himself against Jameson Taillon. “Getting the bat on the ball gives you a chance. And he’s young and he’s still learning.”

Gonzalez’s hit was just 58.9 mph off the bat and launched at a 39-degree angle into short right field, where the converging Anthony Rizzo and Aaron Judge had no chance. “[Taillon] threw the ball right by Gonzie his first two pitches and then he hit it. Didn’t hit it hard but he hit it. He got rewarded for it,” Francona said.

The Yankees won Game 1 on Tuesday behind the strong work of Gerrit Cole and a lights-out bullpen. But the maddening sequence of an off day on a gorgeous Wednesday followed by a rain-driven postponement on Thursday night led to Game 2 not happening until Friday. With a 1:07 pm first pitch, it was the earliest postseason start in the Bronx since October 5, 2006, when a 23-year-old rookie named Justin Verlander and three Tigers relievers teamed up for a 4–3 win in Game 2 of that year’s Division Series. For the first nine innings of this contest, wobbly starting pitching, long balls, encroaching shadows, and dominant relief were the order of the day. And after a stalemate of nearly four hours, the well-placed bloopers of José Ramírez and Gonzalez, followed by a much deeper drive by Josh Naylor — all at the expense of Taillon, making the first relief appearance of his six-year major league career — lifted the Guardians.

It was the only time all afternoon that three straight hitters reached base for either team, and the first time since the first inning that either side collected back-to-back hits.

“I think it’s one of those days for both sides where you start getting into the shadows, it gets to be a tough, tough day to hit,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said afterward.

The matchup offered the possibility potential pitchers’ duel between Shane Bieber and Nestor Cortes, both of whom finished the regular season with ERAs under 3.00. Neither starter had his best stuff on Friday, but both were resilient, bending where they could have broken. Bieber served up a two-run homer in the first inning to Giancarlo Stanton, the slugger’s ninth in his last 12 postseason games dating back to the 2019 ALCS against the Astros. Five of the first 12 Yankees reached base against Bieber; in the bottom of the third, with runners on first and second base, one out, and Stanton at bat again, Francona responded to the urgency of the situation by getting Eli Morgan throwing in the bullpen. The Yankees could not land the knockout blow, however, as Bieber recovered to strike out Stanton swinging at a slider on the outside corner, then retired Josh Donaldson on a dying quail to left fielder Steven Kwan.

That began a stretch of 10 out of 12 hitters set down by Bieber, interrupted by walks to Rizzo in the fifth and Donaldson in the sixth. Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s bloop single into right field on Bieber’s 101st pitch, with two outs and Donaldson aboard, prompted Francona to go to his bullpen in favor of Trevor Stephan (more on whom shortly). The 2020 AL Cy Young winner ended his afternoon with 20 swings and misses and seven strikeouts, walking three and allowing five hits. Of the whiffs, 11 came via his cutter and eight via his slider, and he finished with a 42% CSW%.

Via MLB.com’s Sarah Langs, Bieber became just the third pitcher to strike out Judge three times this year, after Frankie Montas on June 28 and Max Scherzer on July 27. Judge went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts for the day, his first 4-K game since June 23, 2021 against the Royals. So far in this series, he’s 0-for-8 with seven strikeouts, a walk and a stolen base.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but if I did, I’m not sure I’d really want to share it,” said Francona when asked about the Guardians’ plans to pitch to Judge, who set an AL record with 62 homers this year and lead the league with a 207 wRC+, 11.4 WAR, and 131 RBI. “Until you get through a series successfully, I don’t think anybody is going to stand up here and pound our chest. He’s too dangerous.”

As for Cortes, he yielded back-to-back hits to start the game, first a bunt single by Kwan and then a grounder through the right side by Amed Rosario. After getting Ramírez to fly out, he lucked into a double play when Rizzo speared Gonzalez’s line drive and caught Rosario too far off first base. Cortes then retired eight out of the next nine batters, working around a leadoff walk of Austin Hedges in the third, before finding trouble. With two outs in the fourth, Naylor beat out a grounder to second base, took second when Owen Miller walked, and scored on an Andrés Giménez single to right field, with Miller taking third and Giménez second after Judge airmailed his throw home.

Cortes then walked Hedges again to load the bases. Number nine hitter Myles Straw hit a comebacker that the lefty, who’s listed at 5-foot-11, leaped to spear — and in doing so, fell on his butt. He recovered to make a one-hop throw in time to nip the fleet-footed center fielder, whose sprint speed placed in the 94th percentile.

The reprieve proved short-lived. With one out in the fifth, Rosario connected on a 91-mph inside fastball, hitting a 106.5-mph rocket 416 feet to center field for a game-tying homer. One out later, Gonzalez singled to right field, drawing a mound visit from pitching coach Matt Blake as the bullpen stirred. Cortes escaped by getting Naylor to fly out, but it was clear that his day was done. He finished with six hits and three walks allowed to go with three strikeouts and 10 swings and misses, though his 26% CSW% was a couple points below his mark for the season.

The bullpen parade began in the sixth. With two on and two outs, Francona called upon Stephan (“The Best Reliever You’ve Never Heard of,” as Ben Clemens billed him in August), and Boone countered by tabbing Matt Carpenter to pinch-hit for Jose Trevino. Carpenter batted a jaw-dropping .305/.412/.727 with 15 homers in 154 PA before fracturing his left foot with a foul ball on August 8; he didn’t play again in the regular season but rehabbed his way to a Division Series roster spot. The crowd of 47,535 greeted him with a standing ovation, but he struck out swinging at a splitter below the zone. Indeed, Stephan — a 2020 Rule 5 pick from the Yankees, incidentally — struck out all four batters he faced, three of them with the splitter, as though paying tribute to Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, who popularized the pitch in the 1980s and passed away on Friday at the age of 69. On the season, batters hit .153, slugged .224, and whiffed on 54% of their swings against Stephan’s split.

In the eighth, Stephan yielded to James Karinchak, who struck out two but walked the bases loaded. With two outs, Francona called upon Emmanuel Clase, he of the triple-digit cutter (against which batters hit .189 and slugged .245 this year) and low-90s slider (against which batters hit .119 and slugged .174 while whiffing on 42.7% of their swings); Cleveland’s closer got Kyle Higashioka to hit a soft liner to third base to escape the jam.

During the regular season, the 24-year-old Clase never pitched more than an inning. But he got four outs in the Wild Card Series opener, and Francona relied upon him the rest of the way on Friday as well. In the ninth, he worked around a single by Rizzo, then threw the 10th as well, allowing only a one-out walk to Donaldson.

In all, Cleveland’s bullpen combined for 4.1 scoreless innings, allowing just one hit, walking four and striking out eight of 18 batters faced. The first four Yankees relievers were similarly stingy: Lou Trivino, Jonathan Loáisiga, Wandy Peralta, and Clay Holmes combined for four hitless innings, walking two and striking out five. Holmes did have to put out a fire in the ninth after issuing a two-out walk to Straw; the speedster made it all the way to third base after an error by Rizzo on a Kwan grounder sent the ball dribbling into right field, but Holmes retired Rosario on a grounder for the third out.

The hitless streak ended in the 10th when Boone called upon Taillon, who made 32 starts this year while pitching to a 3.91 ERA and 3.94 FIP, but who had never made a relief appearance. Boone had him throwing behind Holmes in the ninth inning of Game 1, which, he said, helped him better understand the routine needed to get ready, but in that one his services weren’t required. This time they were, and while the contact he generated was soft, it was t

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Left of Centerfield
1 year ago

In 44 career playoff PAs against the Guardians, Judge has struck out 27 times (61.4%). Sample sample size but still…

1 year ago

Don’t worry. BoSox’s comment below makes this sample size look like a career’s worth of data.

1 year ago

Facts get even weirder:

— This postseason, Judge struck out as much in each game as he did over 22 regular-season PAs against the Guardians (3K, 13.6%)

— He has struck out 3 or more times in 7 of his 36 career postseason games. Six of those games were against Cleveland.

— In all other playoff games, Judge has struck out 31 times in 125 PA for a 24.8% K rate, a lower rate than his career (28.7%) and 2022 (25.2%) numbers.

Professor Ross Eforp
1 year ago
Reply to  tz

He has four 4 K games in the playoffs, and all of them are against Cleveland.