CLEVELAND -- Josh Naylor had one goal when he stepped up to the plate with his team down one run and a runner on third in the bottom of the 10th inning: Hit a home run.
He didn’t want to hit a game-tying single. He didn’t want to pass the baton to the next man in the order. He wanted to end the game the second he got in the batter’s box. It’s one thing to want to end the game with one swing of the bat, but it’s much harder to actually put it into practice…isn’t it?
“Not really,” Naylor said, definitively.
Clearly, it wasn’t difficult for Naylor, who smacked the opposite-field, two-run homer for his first career walk-off plate appearance in the Guardians' 7-6 victory over the Twins at Progressive Field on Wednesday night. And when Naylor delivers in a big moment, everyone has learned to be careful if they’re in his way, especially his manager Terry Francona.
No one has a passion for the game quite like Naylor -- or at least no one displays it in a way remotely similar to how he does. We saw in May just how emotional he can be in big moments after he threw his helmet down the tunnel at Guaranteed Rate Field, following his game-tying grand slam against the White Sox. He’s such a wild card when his intensity takes over that Francona has learned to be prepared for whatever may happen by wearing a helmet when Naylor is around.
On Wednesday, that was the right choice.
Naylor’s celebration began with a 50-foot bat flip straight in the air (all estimation, of course) half-way down the first baseline. He rounded third and chucked his helmet nearly the same height his bat just traveled and ran through a crowd of his teammates at the plate.
He had already warned them not to jump on him in a dogpile when his walk-off occurred -- considering he was determined to make it happen -- so that he didn’t cause any injury to his recovering leg. Instead, his teammates doused him with whatever they could find in the dugout and ripped off his jersey. Then, he crossed paths with Francona.
Screaming as he made his way off the field, Naylor spotted his skipper and aggressively -- and in a Naylor-like celebratory manner -- headbutted Francona’s helmet, as the manager was leaving the dugout to issue high fives to his players. The second he was out of Naylor’s path, Francona switched his helmet back to his hat, knowing he no longer needed protection.
“I gotta go ice my neck,” Francona quipped, as he left his press conference after the game.
Naylor’s intense passion is an example of what’s allowed the Guardians to be as successful as they’ve been this season. Their roster is not only the youngest in MLB, but even when compared to an average Triple-A team, per the club, which was expected to bring more lows than highs this year. Yet somehow, this inexperienced group has been fueled on jovial enthusiasm to put more tallies in the win column than most were expecting.
“We’re not really worried about anyone in first place, second place, we don’t really care to be honest,” Naylor said. “We want to play our game, play hard and, hopefully, celebrate after.”
The grand ending to Wednesday’s contest was much different than the Guardians’ typical style. The team isn’t one to hit the long ball and usually displays a scrappy, contact-first type of approach. But even though it ended with a blast, Naylor still showcased an old-school plan of attack.
Naylor was waiting for a changeup, but he was convinced Twins hurler Jharel Cotton knew it. After a passed ball scored a run to cut the Guardians’ deficit to one before Naylor’s big swing, he swung through two heaters and spoiled another while he waited for his pitch. When he realized he wasn’t getting that changeup, he decided to take a four-seamer out of the park over the opposite-field fence.
“With two strikes, he has the ability to go the other way,” Francona said. “Fought off a couple of pitches that a lot of people probably miss. But then, he's also strong enough. … That was pretty special right there.”
If there was any concern that the Guardians’ never-say-die attitude was starting to wane, the club assured its fanbase there was at least some left in the tank. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Wednesday marked Cleveland’s third win in 2022 when trailing by at least three runs in the ninth inning or later. The rest of MLB has five wins combined in that scenario (no other team has more than one).
And there’s no time like now to prove there’s still some fight left in the tank after a rough week, as the Guardians have a chance to win the five-game series against the first-place Twins on Thursday afternoon.
“It's special,” Guardians starter Cal Quantrill said. “[Naylor] has been heroic this year, some late-inning homers. … Yeah, I think that can spark the team. Obviously we're playing some good teams here in a row and battling. A couple tough losses. But that's huge, that's awesome.”