CLEVELAND (AP) — As the Cleveland crowd chanted for him like never before, Terry Francona tipped his cap to salute their 11 years together.
This was goodbye. A perfect send-off.
Shane Bieber shut down Cincinnati for six innings and the Guardians sent Francona, their beloved manager, off with a victory Wednesday night in his final home game, a 4-3 victory that severely damaged the Reds’ playoff hopes.
After the final out, Francona, who is retiring after 23 seasons, two World Series titles and the respect of virtually everyone in the sport, stood in line like he always has to shake hands and high-five his players.
He briefly walked down the dugout steps before turning, and with the help of a gentle shove from All-Star third baseman José Ramírez, Francona went back on the field to soak in an ovation to remember.
“Ti-to!” Ti-to!” they screamed.
“I was really touched,” Francona said. “I guess what I’m just trying to convey is the 11 years here are what is the best part. It’s not like the last day. It’s everything that I lived through here with the people that I was with and that’s what I care about.”
Bieber (6-6) limited the Reds to one run and five hits in just his second start since July 15 — and maybe his last for Cleveland. The right-hander missed more than two months with elbow inflammation, one of several key injuries that contributed to the Guardians not defending their AL Central title.
The Reds are in danger of missing the postseason as well. But they got some help as Chicago lost 6-5 in 10 innings to Atlanta, keeping Cincinnati within 1 1/2 games of the Cubs and Miami for the third NL wild card spot with just three games left.
The Guardians strung together five straight hits in the second inning off Reds starter Andrew Abbott (8-6), who didn’t get out of the third inning. Tyler Freeman and rookie Brayan Rocchio had RBI singles in Cleveland’s second.
Down 4-1, the Reds rallied with a pair of runs in the eighth off reliever Trevor Stephan. Pinch-hitter Nick Martini and Jonathan India hit consecutive doubles and Spencer Steer’s RBI groundout brought Cincinnati within one run.
Cleveland’s Emmanuel Clase worked the ninth for his MLB-best 43rd save. The right-hander got a big assist from right fielder Ramón Laureano, who threw out Noelvi Marte trying to stretch a single into a double.
Francona was honored before the game with a video tribute that chronicled his long tenure in Cleveland, a run that actually began in his boyhood as his dad, Tito, played six seasons as an outfielder with the Indians.
Never wanting the spotlight on anyone but his players, Francona said the image of his father brought out emotions he tried to contain.
“It was really touching,” Francona said. “I know I’m not the smartest person in the room by far, but I was smart enough to pick a place where I believed in the people and that only grew. Anybody that’s ever spent 10 minutes with me knows how much I like it here.”
The 64-year-old Francona has been slowed by major health issues in recent years, and he made the decision to step away after a tough, two-month stretch earlier this season.
He’s the winningest manager in Cleveland history, 13th on the career list and his two titles — along with a memorable run in 2016 with the Guardians that came just short — all but guarantee enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
He’ll cheer for the Guardians, just not from the dugout.
“I’m going to be rooting like hell for these guys,” he said. “Might be in a rocking chair or something, hopefully, on a golf course. But I will never not root for these guys. I love these guys, man. This has been 11 years of good.”
Cincinnati needed this win. Bieber didn’t cooperate.
The 2020 AL CY Young winner was dialed in, pitching like the staff ace he’s been for years in Cleveland and could be elsewhere going forward. He walked none and struck out seven in one of his most efficient starts this season.
The Guardians were likely going to trade him before the deadline if Bieber hadn’t gotten hurt and shut down, and Cleveland’s front office may pursue a deal this winter before he enters his final arbitration eligible season
While Bieber was thrilled to make it back from injury, he was also grateful to be able to send Francona off on such a high.
“He deserves everything and more,” Bieber said “Everything he got tonight and then some. He’s got a lot to hang his hat on, to be proud of. Everything, all the praise, all the things that he’s able to look back on and cherish, it’s well earned. Well deserved.”
The Guardians drew 1,834,068 fans in 78 dates at home in 2023, a 41.5% jump in attendance from last season. It’s their highest total since 2019 (1,926,701).
One of the biggest driving forces behind the increase was the team’s monthly ballpark pass. The $49 ticket gave fans a standing-room spot for every home game in that particular month.
Guardians: Rookie INF Gabriel Arias will miss the final four games with a small, non-displaced fracture in his right hand. Arias showed signs of being a productive hitter — there are no concerns about his defense — in the final month. Francona said the break was small, and if it was earlier in the season he would have kept playing.
Reds: Off Thursday before a three-game series to end the regular season in St. Louis. Rookie RHP Connor Phillips (1-0, 5.66 ERA) starts the opener against RHP Jake Woodford (2-2, 5.09).
Guardians: Following a day off, Cleveland begins a three-game, season-ending series in Detroit with RHP Cal Quantrill (3-7, 5.13) facing LHP Joey Wentz (3-12, 6.45) on Friday.
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