Cleveland Guardians are off to a blazing start with MLB's best record under rookie manager

CLEVELAND (AP) — Heads bobbed in unison around Cleveland's clubhouse late Sunday afternoon as techno music thumped from a floor speaker that also projected colored lights around the room.

The mood was both upbeat and typical as some of the Guardians played cards or video games or chilled after a series sweep.

Another spring day at Progressive Field.

Another win.

Rarely, if ever, in the discussion among baseball's top contenders, the Guardians are playing better than anyone. They're off to the franchise's best start in 25 years and showing signs of being around for the long haul.

At 16-6 under first-year manager Stephen Vogt, who has pushed every correct button so far, the Guardians head into the final days of the season's first month with the best record in the majors and atop the AL Central.

Cleveland hasn't started this hot since 1999, and was only better through 22 games in 1966, when it went 17-5 out of the gate.

Two weeks ago, the Guardians stood together on the field before their home opener against the White Sox and gawked at the total solar eclipse. Almost everything else has aligned for them since.

Their blistering start seems to have shocked everyone — everyone but the Guardians.

“I don’t think it’s surprising one bit,” right fielder Will Brennan said after hitting a homer and adding a diving catch in Sunday's 6-2 win over Oakland. “We know the type of guys that we have, and we know that we can win ballgames against anybody and play hard against anybody, and it’s just a recipe for success when you have that.”

It's also a deeply connected team, and a group of players unafraid to talk about how much they love one another. Many of them came up in Cleveland's organization together and are now enjoying success at the highest level.

They work hard. They play hard. But it's not like they're not having fun.

On Saturday, animated first baseman Josh Naylor celebrated hitting a two-run homer by smashing himself in the helmet with his bat before spiking it on the grass and beginning his home run trot.

Naylor said he was simply appeasing the audience gathered along the railing on the top step of Cleveland's dugout.

“It was a cool moment," said Naylor, who delivered a three-run double Sunday and is hitting .406 with 14 RBIs at home. "But it was for the boys and that’s all I really play for. When we get punched, we punch back.”

The boxing reference is apropos. The Guardians have a jeweled championship belt they award following each win, and the trophy has made its way to every corner of the clubhouse as it seems there's a new hero each night.

However, it hasn't all been homers and rainbows for Cleveland.

No. 1 starter Shane Bieber made two stellar starts to begin the season before being shut down and undergoing Tommy John surgery. The Guardians also have been without starter Gavin Williams, who hurt his elbow in training camp, and the bullpen is missing some key pieces.

But they've gotten contributions from the entire roster, with the success only building confidence and momentum.

"We knew we had it in us. That’s why it was so frustrating last year," said starter Tanner Bibee, alluding to the 76-86 finish in manager Terry Francona's farewell season. "Now, everything’s just kind of coming together. It’s really showing what we really are. Last year was just kind of a fluke for a lot of people, especially in the lineups, on defense and in the bullpen. It's been really awesome to see.”

The Guardians, who opened the season by going 7-2 on the road and took three of four last week in Boston, are playing with a relentlessness that wears teams down. They don't give away at-bats and stress teams with aggressive baserunning.

They're hitting more homers, but the Guardians are more pesky than powerful.

From leadoff hitter extraordinaire Steven Kwan on down, they make pitchers work. Throw a bad pitch and pay.

“That's what really good teams do,” Athletics manager Mark Kotsay said. “They do capitalize on mistakes. From a hitting standpoint, you make mistakes, and they end up taking advantage of it. Throughout that lineup, they put the ball in play. They don’t strike out a ton.”

Vogt hasn't missed either.

The Guardians couldn't have scripted a better beginning for the engaging 39-year-old former catcher, whose hiring raised the eyebrows of those who don't know him. He appears to be the perfect pick to guide a team gaining confidence and belief.

“Those are wins, no one can take away from us, so that gives us a great foundation for the season,” said Chris Antonetti, the team’s president of baseball operations. “So there’s a big chunk of it in front of us, and we’ve got a lot of things we need to continue to work on and figure out and try to get better at.

“But it’s better to try to figure that out with the record that we have than if it were reversed.”

It's a small sample size, and what happens in April often doesn't preview what's to come in October.

But it's a start.



Tom Withers, The Associated Press