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Josh Naylor had a moment

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Cleveland got shelled; Josh Naylor did his best to respond

American League Wild Card Game 1: New York Yankees v. Cleveland Indians Photo by Joe Sargent/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Tuesday night was a bloodbath. The Cy Young candidate looked like his 2018 self, the avowed face of the franchise was basically a nonentity. The score was … depressing. There were two silver linings.

  1. We could stop watching early go do something else that brings joy, not gritting through a miserable close game.
  2. Josh Naylor.

Who would have thought that the offensive standout for Cleveland would be the “now” guy from the Clevinger trade? This is a guy who was at best just another guy in the back half of the lineup, and at worst a dose of nothingness along with everyone else after Franmil Reyes. He’s had a hot end to the season, over the last two weeks hitting .333/.379/.444 in a span of 29 plate appearances, though that included just three extra-base hits, all doubles. Was it a sample size? Was it a trend?

Based on what we saw when Naylor finally got to face one of the best pitchers in baseball in Gerrit Cole, it’s at the very least a hot streak. It didn’t matter where the pitch was, he just crushed it.

The first hit he logged was probably the most impressive, for so many reasons. If there’s one failing Cleveland has — and there are many, but if there was one — it’s that high fastballs eat them alive. For better or for worse, this is why Tyler Naquin is the avatar of the entire team.

Apparently, Naylor didn’t get the memo, because he absolutely trucked a high fastball — the hit he logged out on a pitch up and outside the zone in fact — to about three-quarters of the way up the wall. At 104 mph it was one of the hardest-hit balls of the game, and about the only complaint you could lay on it was either the 22-degree launch angle being too high so it didn’t make its way over the wall, or the direction not being toward somewhere that didn’t have a 19-foot wall in the way.

I wrote a while back that Naylor’s combination of very good contact and pretty good power would eventually lead to something very special, but this is a bit earlier than I’d expected.

Then he caught a cement mixer of a slider and just blasted it to next week:

Me, you, the announcers, probably everyone but Gerrit Cole was surprised at it. Cole gave up 14 home runs in his 12 starts, his 18.7% HR/FB rate is the highest of his career. It was the main blemish in his first season in New York. These days though, aces coughing up bases-empty home runs are generally not a route to a loss. So while it was a small loss for Cole, since he’s been eliminating the small hits and the walks, it didn’t do much damage.

Not to mitigate what Naylor did, though. He took advantage of a pitcher that utterly dominated the entire Cleveland lineup, was aggressive when it suited him, and gave the Tribe faithful a small touch of hope, even if that was blown away a mere inning later. Grabbing two hits off Cole is a feather in the cap of any hitter. Naylor just happened to get three, is all. It was amazing, a little blip of happiness in a mess of a game.

It almost felt like a letdown that Naylor “only” knocked another double in the ninth. But that, too, was no cheapie. If he were a bit faster the cycle would have been a real thing, but I’m not going to sit here and complain, not when he produced half their hits and most of their total bases. He was electric and one of the few non-Carlos Carrasco reasons that I’m still excited about Wednesday’s game.

As far as history is concerned, this is only the fourth time that a Cleveland player has logged four hits in a postseason game. That Josh Naylor of all people is in the same conversation as Manny Ramirez, Omar Vizquel, Juan Gonzalez, and the legend Vic Wertz. Maybe it’s a sign, maybe it’s nothing, maybe it’s something in between.

It sucks what happened on Tuesday night. Dwelling on that is easy and makes sense. We can still feel good about what happened though. Naylor, in four at-bats, seeing nine pitches, did something a little bit special in his playoff debut. Hope is a mean thing, but when we’re given at least a glimmer to grasp, we can’t help but stretch for it as much as we can. However Cleveland’s season ends up, for one night at least, Naylor was a star for his new club.