SAN FRANCISCO — Just when life was beginning to get pretty good for the mostly no-name New York Yankees, it got even better with one booming swing Saturday afternoon. Hello, big leagues, meet the healthier, rejuvenated Gary Sanchez.
With the bases loaded in the top of fifth inning Saturday at Oracle Park, Sanchez did something he had struggled with his past two games: He turned on a two-strike pitch. Not only did he make contact with it, he made monster contact, putting the baseball in a place no defender could even dream about getting it.
“The past couple of games I’ve had some struggles at the plate, and when I’m able to connect like that, I feel happy, and I’m going to show some emotion,” Sanchez said through an interpreter, reflecting on the way he dropped his bat, clapped his hands and yelled into his dugout as he began a home run trot.
Sanchez turned so well on the 90.6 mph middle-in sinker from veteran lefty Derek Holland that he dropped the ball a whopping 467 feet away from home plate, way up into the left-center bleacher seats. Daytime, nighttime, anytime, it’s hard to hit a ball that far in one of the best pitcher’s parks in the majors.
“I had to walk down the [dugout] steps and let out a yell,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “That’s one that kind of sucks the life out of the building. That one gets you a little.
“That fires you up when you see one of our dudes step on one. I enjoy that.”
From his view on the bases the day’s starting pitcher, J.A. Happ, also enjoyed watching the mammoth shot that helped power New York to the 6-4 win over the host San Francisco Giants.
“I was at third base [as a baserunner], and I felt like he was going to maybe hit one foul through my chest at 110 [mph], but he ended up hitting it at 110 through the glove out there. That was incredible.”
Sanchez’s drive was the longest grand slam of the four-year-old Statcast era, and it was also the second-longest homer in the 19-year-old ballpark’s history. Only Ian Desmond’s 477-foot homer at the then-named AT&T Park on Aug. 15, 2015, was longer.
“I’ve seen him do that before,” Happ said of Sanchez’s first grand slam, “and that’s a good sign for us.”
It sure is. Remember, with 13 players — among them superstars, All-Stars, a Rookie of the Year, a Rookie of the Year runner-up, and former Silver Slugger and MVP Award winners — on its injured list, New York is trotting out its equivalent of the “B” team Bombers. The shuttle from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to the Bronx has been active this spring.
Just this past week alone, the Yankees have called up minor leaguers Joe Harvey, Stephen Tarpley and Thairo Estrada. They even pulled off a trade Thursday for Cameron Maybin, a 32-year-old veteran outfielder whom Cleveland had recently added to its farm system.
Only two players in the Yankees’ series-opening starting lineup Friday had also appeared in the Opening Day lineup. That’s how bare the cupboard has become for a big league team that has had to reach deep into its organizational depth and make a bevy of roster moves to stay afloat. Amazingly, despite the attrition, the Yankees have won 11 of their past 14 games and sit just 1½ games out of first place in the American League East.
With their share of close wins, late-game wins and wins that have hinged on pivotal baserunning decisions, pitching performances and power displays, the Yankees have started feeling a chemistry some think rivals their best of times in 2017 and 2018.
As Maybin, three days into his Yankees career, put it earlier this weekend: “There’s a different energy” to the ballclub. It’s a confident, loose energy that he last saw in 2017 when he was part of the World Series champion Houston Astros.
“Being in the minors [with the Indians], you know there’s a little bit of every man for himself, which is the case anywhere guys are trying to prove themselves,” Maybin said. “You don’t see that here. It’s we want to do something. We want to win.”
Following another recent victory, Mike Tauchman, just one month into being a Yankee, kept smiling in the clubhouse and repeating two words: “This team.”
“There’s just something about having the intangibles necessary to win close games,” Tauchman said. “This team has it.”
After striking out two and giving up five hits in a scoreless seven-inning performance Saturday, Happ was given the Yankees’ WWE-style championship belt, an honor that goes to the player deemed to have the best performance of the day. As is tradition with the belt winner, Happ addressed the team after the game. He had one message.
“One thing that I felt is, we’re coming to the field and we’re focused and confident when it’s game time,” Happ said. “When you combine those two things, that’s a good recipe. It makes for cleaner games. You’ve noticed when we have clean games, we’ve come out on top for the most part.
“We’ve been focused and we’re gaining more confidence as we go. It’s fun.”
Home runs like the blast Sanchez hit have that kind of team-wide galvanizing effect. Luke Voit ‘s eight homers have certainly helped keep the Yankees stabilized amid these injury-wracked few weeks. Some of the shots he has hit mirrored Sanchez’s slam in the messages they’ve sent: Limping as they are, the Bronx Bombers still have boppers.
Sure, Saturday’s slam is the only base hit Sanchez has had since his own return from the IL three games ago. But it’s a sign that he’s beginning to round back into form, picking up where he left off with his six-homer start before his injury.
After going 0-for-9 with seven strikeouts in his first few at-bats back from the left calf strain, Sanchez foresees more favorable numbers on his nearby horizon. It wasn’t only the grand slam that showed him that — a 389-foot seventh-inning fly out to center field did, too.
“Definitely the last two at-bats, I felt confident,” Sanchez said. “And that’s what you want. Now we’ve got to try to keep that consistency going.”
The best part of the timing of Sanchez’s suddenly sweet swinging is that it comes just ahead of a series of other key Yankees comebacks. Miguel Andujar (small labrum tear) could be back in the lineup in a week. In the couple of days after that, Troy Tulowitzki (left calf strain) could accompany him. Giancarlo Stanton (shoulder/left biceps strain) could be back a few days after them.
By mid-May, the once-beat-up Yankees will be infinitely healthier. And yes, scarier. Just think: If this is what they can do right now at half-strength, what more will they be able to do at full capacity? The possibilities could be endless.
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