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FILE – Cleveland Guardians’ Amed Rosario (1) and Myles Straw jump between Oscar Gonzalez, left, Steven Kwan and Andres Gimenez (0) after the Guardians defeated the Minnesota Twins in a baseball game on Wednesday, June 22 2022 in Minneapolis. Under Terry Francona, baseball’s youngest team — the Guardians’ average batting age (26.1) and average pitching age (26.5) are below Triple-A averages — are having fun while becoming a playoff contender earlier than expected. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

CLEVELAND (AP) — There are still three hours until the scheduled first pitch and the young Cleveland Guardians are already playing games.

Meet the Kinder-Guardians.

Hopping on an electric scooter, pitcher Triston McKenzie rolls past a ping-pong table and barely presses the brakes as he passes the Mario Kart arcade game, whose joystick is often operated by the third-row player All-Star goal José Ramirez.

In the corner, utility Ernie Clement shoots a Nerf basketball court with a 3-point line taped to the clubhouse mat. The team’s chatty chess club will soon host a match and a card game will break out before the Guardians enter the field.

“It’s absolutely the most fun I’ve ever had, and it’s not just the team,” said catcher Austin Hedges, who at 29 is one of Cleveland’s oldest players. “We appreciate and pull for each other. There is no rattling.

“I don’t think that happens at all clubs.”

Under Terry Francona, baseball’s youngest team — the Guardians’ average batting age (26.1) and average pitching age (26.5) are below Triple-A averages — are having fun while becoming a playoff contender earlier than expected.

They are a work in progress, but progressing.

“We are so young” said Francona, 63, invigorated by his team’s youth in his 10th season with Cleveland after health issues sidelined him from the previous two. “But that’s no excuse. When you are young, you have a certain enthusiasm that goes with it.

“We make mistakes, but we don’t play stupid baseball. I take a kick at that.

The Guardians reached the All-Star break at 46-44, just two games behind first-place Minnesota in the AL Central despite an uneven unofficial first half that included scheduling issues due to wet weather.

Perhaps it suited their last game before the break was postponed – Cleveland’s ninth home rain.

And though they lack household names or national television appearances, the Guardians, whose strong first half could spur front office action on the August 2 trade deal, are a team to watch. , both this season and beyond.

In Ramírez, they have one of the best all-around players in the game and he’s under contract until 2028 after signing a seven-year, $141 million deal. Ramírez hit the break leading the AL with 75 RBIs.

Second baseman Andrés Giménez, acquired last year when Cleveland sent Francisco Lindor to the New York Mets, made the All-Star team in his first full season and looks like an eternal star .

Shane Bieber anchors a starting staff that hasn’t been as good as advertised, but the bullpen is loaded with electric weapons, none greater than 24-year-old flamethrower Emmanuel Clase, the No. -Star of the team.

Cleveland’s minor league system is provisioned and the arrival of minority owner David Blitzer – he also has stakes in the Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Devils and soccer clubs in the United States and Europe – could lead to a significant increase in payroll.

This season was supposed to be all about development, but the Guardians have fought their way into the race. They might stay there.

They’ve already had 10 players make their major league debuts in 2022 with rookie outfielders Steven Kwan, Oscar Gonzalez and Nolan Jones all making positive contributions.

“It’s impressive,” New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone said during a recent series in Cleveland. “They are coming of age. They are athletic. They have a lot of interesting young players who are proving to be winning players, winning plays.

The style of Guardians is unorthodox in today’s game. They hit just 71 homers, third-fewest in the majors. But with a patient approach at home plate, they attack in a more modest way, using a base-to-base approach that has worked.

And they don’t give up.

After first baseman Josh Naylor’s spirited lead as he makes his own comeback from a horrific leg injury, Cleveland recorded 19 wins from behind. After a recent home run, Naylor headbutted a helmeted Francona, folding his glasses.

“They might not show us very long on SportsCenter, but if we win, it doesn’t really matter,” said right-hander Cal Quantrill. “I feel like we kind of bought into that. We’ll do it the right way. We’re going to grind, we’re going to keep playing good baseball past the fifth inning, we’re going to really show up and do things the right way.

Teaching while trying to struggle can be tricky, but Francona seems to be threading the needle.

“Patience is key when managing and letting mistakes happen”, Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “Keep a positive environment when the guys are breaking in and let the players be themselves. Tito is one of the best at it by far.

“I have never been to the club with him. But seeing the joy with which his teams play, it’s no secret that he has a special touch with young players while maintaining a fairly high standard for his veteran players.

Along the way, there were growing pains.

A 7-2 stretch of road was followed by a 1-6 slide, and when the Guardians recently lost four straight to Detroit, the post-season chatter died down. Cleveland, however, closed the first half with three straight wins, and an 11-game trip against the White Sox, Red Sox and Rays after the break will be key.

Whatever happens, one thing is certain: Guardians will have fun doing it.

“We all love and respect each other, and we enjoy spending time together,” McKenzie said. “That’s what makes this team so great.”

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Luz W. German