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When young players win despite themselves

Chicago White Sox v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Guardians and their young roster got an ugly walk-off win versus a bad Chicago White Sox team yesterday.

When I was a teenager a septugenarian man attending my church, Dean Philips, was telling me a story about his neighbor as a child who “was so ugly they had to tie a bone around their neck to get a dog to play with them.” (Dean was aware that he, himself, was not a looker and made a comment also to that respect). That vivid and politically incorrect turn of phrase reminds me of the kind of game the Guardians won last night.

But, the dog of series wins and major league baseball victories is playing with the Guardians this morning thanks to an impressive amount of fight displayed by the brothers’ Naylor and a bullpen that was nails, yet again. It did make me wonder, though, what qualifies something as an ugly win?

Personally, I think two of three factors should be present in an ugly win (this isn’t scientific - we’re just talking aesthetics, here):

1. Your starting pitcher gave up five or more runs against a poorly hitting team or your lineup got shut out for 5 or more innings against a bad starting pitcher.

2. You made two or more errors in the field, or there was a glaring mental lapse that was brought up in postgame interviews, and

3. You were playing a team you should be expected to beat and ended up winning by 1-2 runs.

The first ugliness box got checked for the Guardians when starting pitcher Tanner Bibee unable to find consistency in his delivery, which manager Stephen Vogt described as “having a really hard time commanding the ball to his arm-side... pulling everything.” With Bieber out for the year, every bumpy game for a young starter looms a little larger than it used to. I’m confident in Bibee figuring it out, but last night was a reminder of the roller-coaster ride Guardians’ fans may be in for while relying on young starting pitching to lead a rotation this year. Now, a fastball in on the hands of Gavin Sheets that he turned on for the three-run homer was not a bad pitch; Bibee just got beat by one of the few decent hitters on the White Sox. The important thing, however, is not walking the incredibly annoying Robbie Grossman before you face a good hitter like that.

The second ugliness box was checked when the Guardians allowed a run on a double-steal ploy by the White Sox that is the most basic of trick plays. After the game, Vogt said the White Sox just got the Guardians, crediting Benintendi with stopping quickly to allow Sheets to score before the final out of the inning was recorded. But, I can’t say it makes much sense to me for Bo Naylor not just keep the ball in that scenario and not risk the throw to second. I hope the team adjusts their thinking for those situations in the future.

For what it’s worth, Bo Naylor has looked better with framing this year (early stats say he is 0.2 runs above average there), so all news was not bad for the young catcher defensively. And, if Bo is going to make a mistake like that, going 2 for 4 with a home run and walk-off hit is a great way to make up for it. However, the early going in 2024 is a reminder that young players are going to make mistakes and struggle. Bibee and Bo will struggle, Brayan Rocchio will struggle, Logan Allen will struggle... the important thing is to find a way to beat bad teams and win ugly when your young players experience the natural bumps on the road to consistent excellence.

We definitely checked the third “ugly win” box in watching the Guardians fall behind 5-0 to the bad team, the Chicago Girders of Ankles with Socks of Alabaster, for the second game in a row. But, the win part of the ugly is usually made possible through poor play and decision-making from said bad team. Bold move, Cotton, to have Bryan Shaw pitch to Jose Ramirez with a base open in the bottom of the 10th, a runner on second and a one-run lead. Hey, it worked! Well, why not have Shaw pitch to Josh Naylor also even while Will Brennan waits on deck.

The Naylor double was the most predictable thing ever, as was the Bo game-tying hit to end it all. But, the White Sox are kind of actively trying to lose games, so it all tracks. And, you know what? It doesn’t really matter that the Guardians struggled to win this game. It doesn’t matter now that we were in agony seeing Gavin Sheets hit nukes off of multiple Guardians’ pitchers. It doesn’t matter that we were all screaming at every Guardians’ hurler to “JUST THROW IT DOWN THE MIDDLE” when they insist on walking the incredibly annoying Robbie Grossman. It doesn’t matter that every person born before 1970 was undoubtedly complaining about Bo Naylor’s batting average being below .200 and him falling for a trick play as he fell behind in the count against Bryan Shaw 0-2. It doesn’t matter because this is what we got to see at the end of 10 innings of baseball(?)

The great thing about this game is that it always gives you opportunities for redemption. And, when you seize those opportunities, all the ugliness of past mistakes and transgressions wash away like gatorade dumped over all game heroes... except Josh Naylor, apparently. And that dynamic means even when it isn’t pretty, it’s still beautiful.