Mayday! Guardians Gladly Say Adios April

Mayday! Guardians Gladly Say Adios April
(Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND — May 1 is May Day in Europe. It celebrates warming weather. Some Cleveland Guardians fans, however, are chanting “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday” after being left in the cold. Mayday is the international signal for someone in distress.

Fans always hyperbolize, whether something is good or bad.  Thus far this year, the Guardians have been really, incredibly … average. Their 13-15 record should not be a surprise. They had a mediocre start a year ago, too. Yet after going 9-12 in April, Cleveland rallied to win the American League Central Division in 2022. Player performances heated up with the weather and so it follows that it should be that way again in 2023. Or should it? Just as not every game is the same, not every season is identical. There is no guarantee the Guardians will rebound from a 13-15 April this year.

History other than that made in 2022 says so.

No Offense, But …

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The Guardians hardly hit a lick last month. The .232 team average ranks 23rd in MLB. Jose Ramirez (.280) and Steven Kwan (.279) fared the best. That’s below their expectations, however. Oscar Gonzalez (.176), Josh Bell (.206) and Josh Naylor (.212) were nearly non-existent in the middle of the order. Amed Rosario (.227) missed five games with an injury. Rookies Gabriel Arias (.179) and Will Brennan (.211) did not continue the good production they had in spring training. All-star second baseman Andres Gimenez (.253), new catcher Mike Zunino (.241) and center-fielder Myles Straw (.267) did not fill the void.

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The pitching staff was expected to carry the club. It has — to a losing record. Their 4.04 ERA ranks ninth in the AL. Injuries to Triston McKenzie and Sam Hentges in training camp and Aaron Civale after two starts led to five hurlers making MLB debuts to mixed results. Lefty Logan Allen (1-1, 2.45 ERA in two starts) and Tanner Bibee (1-0, 1.59 in one start) looked great. Peyton Battenfield (0-2, 4.57 in four games) had one fine start and Hunter Gaddis (0-1, 6.86 ERA) scuffled. Lefty reliever Tim Herrin (1-0, 7.45) was briefly sensational, then hit hard enough to be sent to Triple-A Columbus.

Shane Bieber (2-1, 3.11) hasn’t performed like the former Cy Young winner that he is. Cal Quantrill (1-2, 5.40) shut out the Detroit Tigers for six innings but labored in four other starts. Zach Plesac (1-1, 7.59) and setup reliever James Karinchak (0-3, 5.79) were liabilities. All-star closer Emmanuel Clase (1-2, 1.88, 9 saves), Eli Morgan (1-0, zero runs in 12 2/3 innings), Trevor Stephan (1-0-, 1.46) and Enyel De Los Santos (1-0, 1.86) saved the month somewhat from the bullpen.

The outlook?

Depending on how you interpret things, it still could be good or foreboding. A year ago in April, the Guardians faced only one team that eventually made the playoffs. They went 0-3 against the New York Yankees. Last month, Cleveland went 5-5 against the Yanks (1-2) and Seattle Mariners (4-3), two teams that were in the 2022 postseason. They went 8-10 against clubs not expected to contend in 2023. That is not a good early sign, although not a death knell.

While playing in a division that seems to lack a powerhouse in 2023, MLB’s new schedule may be against Cleveland. A year ago, the Guardians played AL Central rivals 19 times apiece. They went 47-29 (.618), which means they had a 47-41 (.534) record against everybody else.

Mathematically, that’s not good. This year, clubs play division rivals only 13 times apiece. That gives them fewer opportunities to put distance on those immediate rivals. These “two-point games” where a club can gain a win and administer a loss to a division foe at the same time are even more critical. That has become especially true for the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, teams expected to contend who have fallen far back already.

The Great, The Good, The Bad

Let’s examine the start and eventual finish of 10 other Cleveland teams, starting with last year’s Guardians. That provides a closer comparison to the 2023 version. We will also look at the six Cleveland clubs that went to the World Series. And we’ll revisit the 1991 team that lost a franchise-record 105 games as well as Cleveland teams that started fast and faded faster in 1966 and 2012.

How did their April accolades, or lack of them, affect their seasons? Which players got off to fast starts and which guys struggled out of the gate?

It really is not how you start but how you finish. The start does not always dictate the finish. It is not time for fans to panic though many will. There is cause for concern and Cleveland’s players and staff are showing a bit of that. The wiser veterans understand, however, that many, many teams have started worse and gone on to accomplish more.

2022 Cleveland Guardians

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Lost ALDS

April     9-12 (4/7 open)
May     12-12
June    18-10
July     13-15
Aug.     16-11
Sept.    23-8
Oct.     3-2
Final    92-70

Things were much the same a year ago, record-wise. DH Franmil Reyes, expected to be an offensive force, was brutally bad. He “hit” .135 with 35 strikeouts and only 3 walks. Oscar Mercado batted .197 and was sent to the minors. Catcher Austin Hedges, now with Pittsburgh, hit .140 with 15 strikeouts. Rosario hit .211 without a homer. Ramirez, though, was torrid. He batted .342 with seven homers and 28 RBI last April. It was his best month by far of the season. Gimenez batted .340 with 2 homers and 11 RBI. Kwan was on another planet in his rookie debut. He hit .354. Naylor batted .311 with a couple of homers.

As for the rotation, Bieber was 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA, McKenzie 0-2, 3.71 ERA; Quantrill, 1-1, 3.47; Plesac, 1-2, 3.80; and Civale, 0-2, 10.67. Clase had four saves but was 0-2 with a 4.91 ERA and Karinchak was on the injured list with a strained shoulder. Hentges had a great start, fanning 12 without a walk and allowing one run over nine innings.

There were enough bright lights to provide hope that did indeed turn into reality.

2016 Cleveland Indians

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Lost World Series

April     10-11 (4/5 open)
May     15-13
June    22-6
July     12-12
Aug.     16-14
Sept.    16-11
Oct.     2-0
Final    94-67

The so-so start was a mixed bag. The starters were good, the bullpen bad, and hitting inconsistent. A great run to the postseason led to a greater disappointment — the Game 7 home loss in extra innings to the Chicago Cubs.

Rookie Tyler Naquin earned the center-field job with a torrid spring and kept right on hitting. He batted .341 the first month. Shortstop Francisco Lindor hit .293; Ramirez, .305; and second baseman Jason Kipnis .274 with 3 homers. Catcher Yan Gomes (.200) and DH Carlos Santana (.240) each had 3 homers and 11 RBI. First baseman Mike Napoli (.205) had 4 homers and 11 RBI while right-fielder Lonnie Chisenhall (.240) only knocked in one run.

Ace Corey Kluber was only 1-3 with a 4.24 ERA, though he fanned 35 and walked only five. Trevor Bauer had a 5.28 ERA, although Carlos Carrasco (2-0) had a 2.45 ERA. Danny Salazar (2-1, 2.31 ERA) and Josh Tomlin (3-0, 3.18 ERA) rounded out the rotation. The bullpen went 0-6, however. Cody Allen had seven saves. He also went 0-3 with a 6.97 ERA while Bryan Shaw was 0-1, 9.64 and Tommy Hunter, 0-1, 9.00 didn’t help.

1920 Cleveland Indians

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Won World Series

April     8-3 (4/14 open)
May     18-8
June    17-11
July     22-10
Aug.     11-16
Sept.    20-6
Oct.     2-2
Final    98-56

Cleveland placed second to the White Sox (Black Sox scandal) in 1919. In this glorious year, the club never fell below .500 nor trailed by more than 3½ games and spent 106 days in first place. A great April did foreshadow a greater October 103 years ago in Cleveland.

The Indians scored a whopping 69 runs in 11 games that April. Player-manager Tris Speaker batted .375 with 13 walks and one strikeout. The future Hall of Fame center fielder was only warming up on the way to hitting .388 with 137 runs, 107 RBI, and 50 doubles. He also drew 97 walks and fanned only 13 times. First baseman Doc Johnston (.469), third baseman Larry Gardner (.333), and right-fielder Elmer Smith (.313) added to the hot start.

Jim Bagby opened 3-0 with a 2.33 ERA on the way to a fabulous 31-12 record overall. Stan Coveleski was even better. He went 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA on the way to a 24-14 season. In the World Series, the future Hall of Famer pitched three complete games, going 3-0 with a 0.67 ERA.

1948 Cleveland Indians

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Won World Series

April     6-0 (4/20 open)
May     17-11
June    16-12
July     14-15
Aug.     22-12
Sept.    20-6
Oct.     2-2
Final    97-58

Despite a great start, the team trailed by 4½ games on Sept. 9. That was more than its’ largest lead of 3½ games on June 22. When they lost the season finale to the Tigers, 7-0, the Indians were thrown into the first playoff game in American League history. An 8-3 road win over the Boston Red Sox put Cleveland into the World Series in the same city against the Braves.

Hall of Famers Bob Feller (2-0, 0.47 ERA) and Bob Lemon (2-0, 2.00 ERA) were basically a two-man rotation as Sam Zoldak (0-1) and Don Black (0-0, 20.63 ERA) were ineffective early. Then 27-year-old rookie Gene Bearden was called up in May and went 20-7 with a 2.43 ERA. The great Negro Leagues star Satchel Paige was signed at age 41 in July. He went 6-1 with a 2.48 ERA.

Player-manager Lou Boudreau hit .519 in April to start his greatest season. He had career bests of 18 homers, 106 RBI, 116 runs, and a .355 average. Third baseman Ken Keltner had five homers in six games and hit .375. Larry Doby, who in 1947 became the first black player in the AL, batted .300.

1954 Cleveland Indians

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Lost World Series

April     6-6 (4/13 open)
May     22-7
June    20-9
July     21-8
Aug.     26-6
Sept.    16-7
Final    111-43

A four-game sweep in the World Series by the New York Giants is still the most upsetting outcome in franchise history. Cleveland was mediocre only in April and spent 134 days in first place. The Indians were a whopping 69 games over .500 before losing on the final day of the regular season.

Hall of Famers Lemon and Early Wynn each won 23 games. Mike Garcia won 19, Art Houtteman 15, and aging Feller went 13-3. Ray Narleski and Don Mossi were a potent right-left duo in the bullpen and the team ERA was an AL-best 2.78. Doby had 31 homers and 126 RBI and third baseman Al Rosen hit .300 with 24 homers and 102 RBI. Second baseman Bobby Avila won the batting title (.341) and scored 112 runs. Left-fielder Al Smith scored 101.

The team hit .260 in April and .262 for the season. The vaunted pitching staff had a 3.81 ERA in the first month, by far its worst of the year. Nothing in the first 12 games foreshadowed the next five months. And nothing over that final stretch predicted the postseason flopperoo.

1995 Cleveland Indians

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Lost World Series

April     2-2 (4/27 open)
May     19-7
June    20-8
July     18-9
Aug.     21-9
Sept.    19-9
Oct.     1-0
Final    100-44

A strike in April limited the season to 144 games. Then the offensive onslaught was remarkable. After losing records in 29 of the previous 40 seasons, Cleveland pummeled the opposition. The Indians spent 147 days in first place, were 13-0 in extra innings, and finished 56 games over .500. Seven regulars and reserve Herbert Perry batted over .300 and the .291 team average led the AL. The Indians also led in runs, hits, homers, and stolen bases.

Albert Belle (.317, 50 homers, 126 RBI), Manny Ramirez (.308, 31 homers, 107 RBI), and Kenny Lofton (.310, 93 runs, 54 steals) were an unparalleled outfield trio. DH Eddie Murray (.323, 21 homers, 82 RBI), third baseman Jim Thome (.314, 25 homers) and second baseman Carlos Baerga (.314, 90 RBI), first baseman Paul Sorrento 25 homers) and catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. (.300) added to the awesome attack.

The pieced-together pitching staff led the AL with a 3.83 ERA. Charles Nagy and Orel Hershiser each went 16-6, Dennis Martinez 13-7 and rookie Chad Ogea, 8-3. Relievers Jose Mesa (46 saves, 1.13 ERA), Eric Plunk and Paul Assenmacher (both 6-2 with ERAs under 3.00), and Julian Tavarez (10-2, 2.44) were tremendous.

1997 Cleveland Indians

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Lost World Series

April     12-13 (4/2 open)
May     15-11
June    13-11
July     14-13
Aug.     16-14
Sept.    16-13
Final    86-75

The club almost seemed bored all season as the rest of the division finished under .500. Cleveland led for 147 days, including five during a ho-hum April. The Indians revved it up in the postseason only to fall in extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series to the Marlins.

The pitching was poor all year, with a 4.79 ERA that was ninth in the AL. Nagy (15-11) pitched the team’s only complete-game shutout. Mesa (16 saves) and Mike Jackson (15 saves) shared the closer’s role and Hershiser (14-6) was the only other reliable starter until Jaret Wright (8-3) came up from the minors to help.

David Justice (.329, 33 homers, 109 RBI) and Matt Williams (32 homers, 105 RBI) were acquired in blockbuster trades. Alomar had his best season (.324/21/83) while Thome (.286/40/102) and Ramirez (.326/26/88) again were offensive forces. Shortstop Omar Vizquel won his fifth of nine consecutive gold gloves and hit .280 with 43 steals.

1966 Cleveland Indians

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Finished 5th of 8

April     10-1 (4/11 open)
May     18-13
June    15-15
July     11-19
Aug.     14-17
Sept.    11-15
Oct.     1-1
Final    81-81

The pitchers were out of this world in April with a 1.66 ERA, 106 strikeouts, and only 60 hits and 39 walks allowed. A .274 batting average helped. Cleveland did not bat better than .252 in a month again in 1966 and hit under .230 in May, August, and September/October. Coach George Strickland replaced Birdie Tebbetts as manager with 39 games left. It didn’t help as he compiled a 15-24 record.

Sonny Siebert (16-8, 2.80 ERA, 1 save), Luis Tiant (12-11, 2.79, 8 saves) and Steve Hargan (13-10, 2.48 ERA) pitched well all year. Sam McDowell (9-8, 3 saves) was merely okay after an astronomical April (3-0, 1.99 ERA). Gary Bell (14-15, 3.22) was 8-3 on July 1. He went 1-5 in September. The five starters were used 49 times in relief as Dick Radatz (0-3, 4.61, 10 saves) and Bob Allen (2-2, 4.21, 5 saves) struggled.

Cleveland hit only .237 and was last in the AL in doubles and triples. Rocky Colavito (30/72/.238), Leon Wagner (23/66/.279), Fred Whitfield (27/78/.241) and Max Alvis (17/55/.245) supplied most of the offense.

1991 Cleveland Indians

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Finished 7th of 7

April     7-10 (4/8 open)
May     10-17
June    7-21
July     9-18
Aug.     10-20
Sept.    11-15
Oct.     3-4
Final    57-105

Here’s an example of April paving the way for the season. The pavement crumbled into a horribly rocky road and franchise-worst 105 losses. The Indians hit .235 in April. The pitching staff had by far its’ best month with a 2.61 ERA. The offense never got hot and the pitching went south — seemingly to Antarctica.

Managers John McNamara (25-52 record) and Mike Hargrove (32-53) used 24 pitchers. Only Tom Candiotti (7-6, 2.24 ERA before a trade to Toronto), reliever Jesse Orosco (2-0) and September callup Eric Bell (4-0) had winning records. Fourteen men were given starts. Greg Swindell (9-16, 3.48 ERA) and Nagy (10-15, 4.13 ERA) were “best”. Rod Nichols (2-11), Dave Otto (2-8) and Eric King (6-11) were not.

The offense was pitiful except for young Belle (28 homers, 95 RBI, .292) and Baerga (11/69/.288). Regulars Alex Cole, Felix Fermin and Mark Lewis hit zero homers. Joel Skinner and Jerry Browne hit one apiece. Alomar, the 1990 Rookie of the Year, battled injuries and batted only .217 without a homer. As Chief Wahoo himself would say: “Ugh!”

2012 Cleveland Indians

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Finished 4th of 5

April     11-9 (4/5 open)
May     16-14
June    12-15
July     11-15
Aug.     5-24
Sept.    12-15
Oct.     1-2
Final    68-94

A decent April was offset by an awful August that cost manager Manny Acta his job. Pitching proved to be the culprit. The team’s 4.10 ERA in the opening month was its’ best by far. Acta and interim skipper Alomar (3-3) used 24 pitchers. The best ERA of any of the seven men who started 12 or more times was by Zach McAllister (6-8) and 4.24. Justin Masterson (11-15, 4.93), Ubaldo Jimenez (9-17, 5.40), Derek Lowe (8-10, 5.52),  Tomlin (5-8, 6.36), Jeanmar Gomez (5-8, 5.96) and rookie Kluber (2-5, 5.14) had numbers more representative of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. That was the team that went 20-134!

Santana (.252, 18 homers, 76 RBI) and Kipnis (.257/14/76) led the offense. Shin-Soo Choo (.283/16/67) and Asdrubal Cabrera (.270/16/68) tried to help. It wasn’t nearly enough.

How About This Comeback?

No team rivals the 1914 Boston Braves for the most improbable comeback. They had finished fifth, 31½ games back at 69-82 in 1913. When they were 16 games under .500 on June 8, 1914, nobody noticed. At 15 games back on July 4, few cared. After sweeping the defending champion Philadelphia Athletics in the World Series, everybody was stunned.

It was a Braves new world in the second half as they went an incredible 61-16 (.792). That included a 45-11 (.804) run in August and September. After August 11, they moved out of old, cramped South End Grounds to bigger Fenway Park and went 23-5-2 there.

The Braves hit only .251 with 35 homers. Everything came together for two pitchers, however. Bill James went 26-7 with a 1.90 ERA and three saves. For the rest of his career, he had an 11-14 record. Dick Rudolph went 26-10 with a 2.35 ERA. Together after August 1, they were a combined 28-3. In the World Series, James was 2-0, allowed two hits and no runs. Rudolph was 2-0 with a 0.50 ERA.

Who Can Forget This Collapse?

The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies were 10-2 on May 1. They led the NL by 6½ games on Sept. 18 — then went 1-12, including 0-7 at home. After spending 132 days in first place, it was goodbye pennant.

A 16-inning road loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sept. 18 greased the skids. With two outs in the 16th, Jack Baldschun yielded a single to Willie Davis, who stole second. Tommy Davis was walked intentionally and both moved up on a wild pitch. Morrie Steevens came on to face Ron Fairly and Davis (Willie) stole home. Dodgers win, 4-3.

The Phils fell out of first with a 14-8 loss to the Milwaukee Braves on Sept. 27 despite three homers by Johnny Callison. The Braves got 22 hits, including five from Lee Maye and three apiece by Joe Torre and Felipe Alou. The Cincinnati Reds, winners of 12 of 13, took the lead. The Reds then went 1-4. The St. Louis Cardinals won eight straight and went 9-2 after Sept. 24 to win the pennant and then took down the Yankees in the World Series.

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