NEW YORK – Chris Valaika knows about making contact. He singled off Santiago Casilla back in 2010 on the very first pitch he saw in the major leagues.
“I wanted to stay aggressive my first at-bat,” Valaika recalled with a smile. “That was more of my identity. I don’t want to say that I took my playing career and tried to push that on my players.”
Valaika is in his first season as hitting coach of the Cleveland Guardians, who try to overcome a 1-0 deficit against the New York Yankees when their best-of-five AL Division Series resumes Thursday night — weather permitting.
Cleveland’s 1,122 strikeouts were the fewest by far in the major leagues and its .254 batting average was sixth best, 10 points above the big league average. The major leagues’ youngest team was just 29th among the 30 clubs in homers — 127 to the Yankees’ big league-best 254.
Manager Terry Francona says the plan is tied to personnel.
“If we had nine guys that were capable of hitting 40 home runs, our philosophy would be a little different, because you just try to put your players in the best position to succeed,” he said before Wednesday’s workout. “You don’t try to ask them to do things they can’t, and you try to do the things they do well more often. That’s kind of Coaching 101.”
Steven Kwan didn’t swing and miss until the 116th pitch he faced in the major leagues, in his sixth game when he swung over a curveball from Cincinnati’s Nick Lodolo. The contact streak was the longest in the major leagues at the start of a career since at least 2000, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and the first miss came in Kwan’s 40th swing.
Kwan finished ninth in the AL in batting (.298) and on-base percentage (.397). His 9.0% strikeout rate was second in the major leagues behind Minnesota’s Luis Arraez and the fifth-best since Statcast started tracking in 2015.
In an age when batters are browbeaten with launch angles aimed to produce longballs, the Guardians are an anomaly.
“I think that came from Tito early in spring training, talking about we are going to have to do the little things right to win ballgames," Kwan said, referring to his manager by his nickname. “First and third, getting the run over, sac flies. That’s just kind of the identity from day one, and luckily we were able to kind of work through that. In terms of the home runs, we’ve done a really good job this year of keeping our head down and not listening to any of the noise.”
Contact has become scant in the playoffs. Even with a two-game opening-round sweep of Tampa Bay, the Guardians have scored four runs and struck out 35 times.
Still, the approach doesn’t change.
“We knew coming into this year that we were going to have to be different," Valaika said. "So that was a big part of when we talked about continuing to make contact, have a two-strike approach, situational hitting. I think a lot of teams talk about that, but I thought our guys did a really good job of making that part of our identity.”
Shane Bieber, a two-time All-Star and the 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner, faces Aaron Judge & Co. for Cleveland and left-hander Nestor Cortes will be on the mound for the Yankees. Rain is forecast, and a postponement would lead to the teams possibly playing four games in a row.
Bieber’s 2021 season was limited by a strained right shoulder. He was 4-6 in late July this season before going 9-2 with a 2.04 ERA in his last 13 starts. He pitched three-hit ball over seven innings against the Rays in Friday’s wild-card opener, allowing only Jose Siri’s sixth-inning solo homer.
Cortes was a first-time All-Star and went 12-4 with a 2.44 ERA. With multiple arm slots and an occasional hesitation delivery, he’s become a fan favorite.
“He’s had to scratch and claw for everything he’s gotten. He’s risen from the ranks of non-prospect,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “He combines that, `I’m going to treat this like the last game I might ever pitch.′ He’s competitive as heck, but he has a lot of fun doing what he’s doing. ”
A 36th-round draft pick in 2013, Cortes was taken by Baltimore in the 2017 winter meeting draft, returned the following April, traded to Seattle in November 2019 and re-signed by the Yankees as a minor league free agent before the 2021 season.
Cortes was 1-0 in two starts this year against the Guardians, striking out 14 in 12 1/3 innings and holding batters to 4 for 40.
He glowed with his reception during Tuesday night’s introductions.
“It felt super cool. My parents were in the stands and after the game, they said, `Man, we couldn’t believe what we heard out there.” So it was kind of surreal for me,” Cortes said. “I remember walking up to the line and everyone is like, you got the biggest ovation ..."
He paused and finished: "Until Judge came up, obviously.”
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