GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) — It didn’t take a severe ankle injury to ignite Josh Naylor’s love of baseball. But time away from the game definitely deepened his appreciation.
Nine months after a frightening collision ended his season, the Cleveland Guardians outfielder-first baseman is resuming his career.
After playing on minor league fields in the last week, the 24-year-old was in the lineup for his first spring training game Tuesday, batting fifth and playing right field against Milwaukee. He doubled in his first at-bat.
“It felt great to do it again,” Naylor said after batting four times and having some chances in right field Saturday. “I’m trying to keep myself under control.”
Naylor, the 12th overall pick by the Miami Marlins in 2015, was traded to San Diego the following year. Cleveland acquired him in a nine-player deal at the 2020 trading deadline.
He had played in 69 of the team’s 74 games last year, with seven home runs and a .253 batting average, when trouble struck.
Last June 27 in Minnesota, Naylor was in right field and chasing a shallow flyball when he collided with second baseman Ernie Clement. Jorge Polanco wound up with a single — Naylor wasn’t so fortunate.
Naylor was taken to a hospital and was diagnosed with a “closed fracture and dislocation of the right ankle.” He underwent surgery later that week to repair those injuries, in addition to torn ligaments in the ankle.
“It was difficult, but I tried to take all the positives out of it, be the best teammate I could be,” Naylor said. “Fill them with energy, love, excitement. That was also important for me in helping me feel better. It was great to not go into that ‘woe is me’ type of mentality.”
Guardians manager Terry Francona wasn’t surprised at Naylor’s positivity in the wake of adversity.
“He’s got a lot of energy. It’s a good thing,” Francona said Saturday. “I think he had a lot of time to, not only where he had to work, but a lot of time to think about things and probably how much he missed the game. I think that he’s back around his teammates and the game, I think he’s trying to enjoy every moment which he certainly seems to be accomplishing.”
Naylor agreed with his manager’s assessment.
“I think it did teach me a lot about myself. It really brought out the love of the game more for me,” he said.
“Being sidelined, you think about everything you want to do on the field, and I just tried to use everything as motivation and ammunition for when I got back to playing,” he said.
Talking about his rehab experience, Naylor said, “The people I met were well worth it. It was a humbling experience all the way around. I got to work with a ton of different athletes, see athletes from different sports.”
There were a bunch of (NFL) combine guys training there, other big league guys, people from multiple sports. It was very cool. It was such a humbling experience and I’m very thankful — weird enough to say, but I’m thankful I went through this the way I did because it was such a great experience, even though it was so challenging.”
His work ethic goes back to his days playing another sport growing up in Canada, back home in Mississauga, Ontario.
“That’s where I get it from. Playing hockey, you got to play injured. I took that into baseball,” he said. ’I love playing banged-up and hurt. I don’t ever want to let my teammates down. I’ll play through anything for them if I physically can play.”
Now that he is nearing that full return, Naylor is ready to play wherever the Guardians need him.
“I think I will be ready” for opening day on April 7, he said. “I had a lot of help from a lot of people.”
“I love to work. I love to be the best I can be. Everything you do in the offseason, not only physically but mentally, will help you get to another level of your life,” he said.
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