TOP OF THE SECOND: YANKEES 6 – 1 ASTROS
We’re at Yankee stadium for a rematch of last year’s AL Wild Card game, both the stakes and temperature considerably lower, bench players sipping on hot chocolate out of paper gatorade cups in the dugout.
I tune in and spot the towering frame of Michael Pineda tossing warm-up pitches on the mound, maybe the league leader in sideways-cocked hat angle bravado, up there with Fernando Rodney and Pedro Strop—and the hands-down league leader in Jay-Z cosplay.
And I’ll go ahead and pencil in his name onto the growing roster for the Gold Chain Olympics, set to coincide this summer with the start of the actual-Olympics Olympics, joining a crew filled with—but not limited to—the most impressive of the impressives: Edison Volquez, Yoenis Cespedes and Jorge Soler.
He fires the first pitch past Preston Tucker, the type of great, preppy name that lends itself to moonlighting as a caddy at an elite golf club, or retroactively becoming childhood best friend to Hunter Pence and/or Dallas Braden.
Tucker falls victim to a strong strike-out for Pineda, rousing the Yankee Stadium faithful as the PA system chirps out its iconic strikeout whistle, echoing out over the half-empty navy blue stands.
Now the wee Jose Altuve comes up, hero for little dudes everywhere, looking so cold that he actually seems angry, blowing warm air into his fists between pitches.
“There some debate whether Altuve is 5’6” or 5’5”,” says one of the YES Network commentators. “He’s the smallest player in the majors since 1981, Freddie Patek.”
And the smallest strike zone since Simon Birch, I think.
Hit by pitch for Altuve. A mean, cold-weather stinger.
George Springer comes up now, at 6’3” looking superhuman in comparison.
I look away for not one full second and check back in seeing Pineda standing there on the mound with both hands atop his head, his swagger lifted from his body as if by one of the Space Jam aliens, looking on the verge of crying.
Springer’s now trotting around the bases, three of his team-mates jogging ahead of him.
A big, big grand slam. 6-5, Yankees still ahead, but barely.
— MLB (@MLB) April 7, 2016
The Yankee Stadium strikeout whistle quiets down bashfully, its tail between its legs.
Ivan Nova tosses off his windbreaker in the bullpen and starts warming up, continuing the unspoken—but apparently consistent—Yankee rule of donning a thick metal chain around the neck for any pitching appearance. Throw him in the ring for the G.C. Olympic title.
So, to recap, they can cock their hats off-center and wear thick silver chains, yet they can’t—per the Yankee franchise rules—grow beards. Odd.
Nova keeps tossing, but Joe Girardi opts to stick with Pineda, keeping his bullpen fresh ahead of an away trip to Detroit.
Wunderkind Carlos Correa, who hit a home run just an inning earlier, returns to the plate. Gets on first with a single.
He makes a break for second with the next batter up, as Pineda elicits a well timed fly-out to get out of the inning, the lead just barely intact.
We flip sides, can the Yankees hold on?
BOTTOM OF THE SECOND: YANKEES 6 9 – 5 ASTROS
Switch-hitting Mark Teixiera is up batting lefty against Michael Feliz, on in long relief for Collin McHugh, who was pulled with a 135 ERA after giving up five in 1/3 of the first inning. 135. Not 13.5. One hundred and thirty-five!!
Early-season baseball stats are wacky, maybe the top hidden gem of American sports.
Feliz strikes out Teixeira looking, awkwardly, with a fastball right down the middle.
Brian McCann, who I still think of only as an Atlanta Brave, comes up with the pull shift on. Gets into a 2-1 count with another fastball straight down the middle, in this duel of the innings eaters
McCann draws an effortless walk. Now, some momentum!
Carlos Beltran comes up to bat, still a sore, nostalgic spot in the memory of any Houston fan over the age of 15, after leaving behind an historic mark in the 2004 playoffs—8 home runs in 12 games—on a short stint between Royals and Mets tenures.
Beltran smacks a bouncing get to the chopper just past Altuve, one of those classic sneak-hits whose most common habitat is the infield holes in bitter cold April ballgames.
Now Chase Headley comes up, his cheeks pink from the chilly wind. He’s a core member of the new Yankee player mold, chaired by Brett Gardner and featuring Brian McCann and Raul Ibanez, leaders in the strong and stern guy category.
Ugly strikeout for Headley.
So…you might be thinking, what’s so great or “big” about this inning, anyway? Yankees still have the lead, the bulk of their early run production came in the six-run first inning. Well, for one reason.
One man who’s been making the news in New York this week, one man who made his Yankees debut just days ago, one man whose goofy grin, infuriating on-field antics, and slowly growing stomach paunch left Cubs fans simultaneously pulling their hair out and smiling after every game like they still love the guy.
I’m talking about budding Yankees star, former supposed-to-be star, Starlin Castro.
The man himself is up now, looking confident and at home in New York, perhaps—as Brian Cashman must have surmised—needing, and actually thriving on, the constant media and team pressure/scrutiny (that Chicago may have had just barely too little of) to stay focused, alert, determined to translate his undeniable talent into daily on-field success.
From watching him for many years, I can say—happily, that it’s now in retrospect—that the frustration of watching Castro’s too-often spoiled talent was only ever matched by the Carlos twins of Zambrano and Marmol, yet was never paired with psychosis or nervous self-doubt in the way the latter two players were.
With Castro, all it took was focus.
So when I see him succeed in New York, when I see him walk up to the plate against Michael Feliz more confidently that almost any other time, when I see him drive a whoa, that’s deep! three-run drive to left-center, animating the bronx faithful and smiling as he taps his always-too-large helmet rounding third, when I see him jogging in to home plate with his legs spread like he desperately needs a toilet, when I see him wearing his half-balaclava in the dugout and high-fiving new teammates, I can’t say I’m too surprised. Nor sad, because his time in Chicago simply had to end. But good on him, I hope he keeps it up. Or in other words, for the sake of Yankee fans everywhere, I hope they pray to god that he can stay, well, focused.
The crowd noise rises in a new eruption of pride. “Let’s go Yankees!”
The lead jumps up to 9-5 from one swing, and they never look back—scoring 16 before it’s all over.
— MLB Stat of the Day (@MLBStatoftheDay) April 8, 2016
The inning comes to an end as Didi “best name in the majors” Gregorius quietly pops out, and the Yankees are on to the third.
This second inning in the Bronx was not the typical big inning, as we might tend to think of it, despite the seven runs scored, but big for what it might set up the rest of the year, big for how it gave the Yankees a much-needed early win, and big, even bigger for cementing Castro’s early legacy with the club as one of positivity, hope, and a word that I’ve probably never used with him—success.