Guardians outfielder / first baseman Josh Naylor sustained one of the more gruesome baseball injuries in recent memory when he collided with infielder Ernie Clement last June in Minnesota.
The resulting ankle surgery was extensive and the team had very little in the way of a timeline for when he might return. His 2021 season was over, and much of his 2022 was in doubt.
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After a nine-month absence, Naylor made his way back to the field on Friday night. It took months of rehab, sitting on the couch and even hitting sock balls pitched by his mom because it was all he could do for a while.
The goal was to return by Opening Day. He ended up so close, but the Guardians had him begin the season on the injured list and playing with Triple-A Columbus in an effort to get him another week’s worth of games in a controlled environment.
He only needed about an extra week, and on Friday he was activated off the injured list ahead of the home opener against the San Francisco Giants.
“He was borderline devastated when he did not make it at first, when we told him of the plan,” manager Terry Francona said. “And I hope he does take a second and take it before he starts competing. Because that’s a pretty tough road back. You’re probably going to see a little limp at times, I’m guessing especially when it’s a little chilly. … But he’s doing OK or we wouldn’t play him. And hopefully give us a little help. “
Naylor said after the game, during which he was hitless and the Guardians lost 4-1, that the baseball part of it pretty much felt the same. But the ovation from the crowd was something special.
“It was awesome,” Naylor said. “They are, I think, the best fan base in baseball, man. I can’t ask for much more. They’re phenomenal. Kind of gave me a little bit of the chills out there. ”
Naylor was in a medical boot for months and said the isolation of it all helped him to re-evaluate some things on the mental side of the game. Missing that much time is never anything an athlete wants, but Naylor has said since the spring that he felt he did, at least, get something out of it.
“Yeah, I missed out on a little bit last year, but I think it was a good opportunity to grow mentally, really see a different side of the game, a different side of athletics,” Naylor said. “Not everything is physical in baseball or in sports in general. So I think being able to have a chance to learn how to control yourself mentally is big in sports. I took all the months I was rehabbing to learn how to grow mentally.”
Naylor could get playing time at either first base or in right field. The Guardians can slide several players – including Owen Miller, Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario – into different spots to afford Francona plenty of flexibility with the lineup on a daily basis.
But Naylor is back following what was a brutal injury and a lengthy recovery. And the chills of the home crowd accompanied his return.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about the Guardians at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cleveland-guardians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.