March 4, 2024

Did Josh Naylor Just Rescue the Guardians’ Season (Again)?

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Sunday might have been Mother’s Day, but Josh Naylor treated the Los Angeles Angels like he was their father all weekend. Three games. Three lead-stealing home runs. Naylor doubled his home run total for the season over the course of about 40 hours as he led the Guardians to win two out of three over the Halos.

In doing so, Naylor’s power supply has the ability to rescue the Guardians’ season. Without his round-trippers, the team would have been sunk, likely swept by the Angels and staring down a lowly 17-23 record at the 40-game mark. Yes, they only won two of three from Los Angeles and their current 19-21 mark isn’t a night and day difference, but for the first time since the early days of the season, the Guardians’ outlook appears improved, dare I say, even hopeful.

Propelled by Naylor, Cleveland scored four or more runs in all three games over the course of the weekend. That’s only the third time this season they’ve scored four or more in three straight games and the first time in the month of May. In case it wasn’t already clear, an increase in offense is an absolute imperative for this team. They’re currently tied for second worst in baseball in runs per game and are dead last in weighted Runs Created+.

While the Angels aren’t one of the best pitching teams in baseball, they aren’t exactly a slouch either. Los Angeles is 16th in team ERA, so while the Guardians didn’t have their sudden offensive output against the 90s Atlanta Braves, they weren’t facing poor pitching either. All three games were high-leverage affairs that saw the best of LA’s bullpen, which is an even better entity in itself (8th in Bullpen ERA).

Perhaps more important than the numbers though was the general feel of the weekend. Naylor and company played hard over all three games despite their own deficiencies. Saturday night provided the perfect example.

In the first inning, with men on second and third base and one out, Josh Bell hit what should have been a sacrifice fly to score Steven Kwan while Amed Rosario would also tag up and move to third base. Instead, Angels right-fielder Hunter Renfroe threw an absolute seed to third and retired Rosario for the third out of the inning. Kwan, by rule, would score on the play had he crossed the plate before Rosario was tagged out. Disappointingly, Kwan wasn’t running all out and did not cross the plate before Rosario was tagged, meaning the Guardians exited the first inning empty-handed and trailing 1-0. Later, now trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the 4th, Jose Ramirez started off the inning with a lead-off double before he was picked off by Angels starter Reid Detmers, killing what felt like a much-needed rally at the time before it started.

All season, these types of events have felt like the demise of the Guardians. For a team that’s struggled so much just to scratch out 3.6 runs per game, every squandered opportunity has felt like the death side of a life-or-death situation. Saturday night’s game came in the shadow of not only Naylor’s first home run of the weekend on Friday but its aftermath. That aftermath was the letdown that followed as Cleveland’s usually lock-down closer Emmanuel Clase blew his fourth save (already) of the season.

Having been gut-punched on Friday night and subsequently botching their way into a seemingly insurmountable deficit (given their offense) on Saturday, the Guardians could have put their tails between their legs, sulked and called it a weekend. They brought the deficit to only one run but also allowed it to balloon back to 6-2 in the 8th. It would have been easy at that point to mail it in.

Instead, Naylor and the Guardians said “(forget) that” and exploded for a six-run inning where Nayls may have provided the big blow, but also included contributions from six of the top seven spots in the order. It was the kind of production we haven’t seen from the team all at once this year. That inning changed the vibes of the game, and hopefully, the season.

Naylor’s play is reminiscent of his actions nearly exactly one year ago when he doubled and homered twice, all after the 8th inning against the Chicago White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on May 10th of last year. Those at-bats carried the Guardians to victory that night and set the tone for the next five months to come. From that night on Guardians fans witnessed a team that was admittedly offensively deficient but would make up for it by never taking any offensive opportunity for granted. They became a team that would take the extra base, make teams pay for both physical and mental errors in the field and thrive in making the most out of close ballgames. And as a fan, from that day on they felt like a team that was never out of any ballgame. They acted like it too, with a league-leading 29 come-from-behind wins.

They learned their identity that night in Chicago, and ironically with another trip to the Southside next up on the docket, perhaps they re-found that identity over the course of this past weekend. Time will tell. One three-game set against a moderately good (although very top-heavy in talent) team in the American League doesn’t make a season. A six-game road trip against a floundering division rival and a former friend that now plays in New York will say a lot about if what the Guardians accomplished this past weekend is sustainable. Coming home afterward for another three against Chicago could say even more. We have hit the 40-game mark. Between now and Memorial Day is when we really can begin to take inventory of the season and know what a baseball team is about.

Did we find out what the Guardians are made of already or will this weekend remind them what their true identity is?

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