BY BOB KLAPISCH
Yankees first baseman Greg Bird, center, is congratulated by teammates at the end of the game against the Minnesota Twins, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, in New York. Bird drove in all of the Yankees runs with two two-run home runs, his first home runs of his major league career.
NEW YORK – It’s not often you run into a story blessed by its own synchronicity, which is exactly how it felt as Greg Bird was crushing two home runs on Wednesday. His performance in the Yankees’ 4-3 win over the Twins wasn’t just good, it was breathtaking. Not just memorable, but powerful enough to possibly change the Bombers’ calculation of who fits where in these final 43 games.
But first things first: The Yankees finished off a sweep of the Twins, seemingly regaining their balance after last week’s scare by the Blue Jays. The Bombers are still barely in first place, but look more composed after a series in which Nathan Eovaldi and CC Sabathia both pitched well, Alex Rodriguez finally hit a home run and Bird introduced himself to the Yankees’ family in impressive fashion.
The Yankees will have one more chance to fatten up this weekend on the last-place Indians before a critical three-game test against the Astros, whom the Bombers would face if the playoffs began today.
The postseason is close enough for Joe Girardi to abandon long-range thinking and instead start thinking of strategies to win those short series. Does Bird have a place in that calculus? He was summoned last week from Class AAA as a mere accessory to A-Rod and Mark
Teixeira in the middle of the order, but wouldn’t you know it, the fates had other plans for the kid.
Teixeira is out of the lineup with a deep bone bruise in his right shin, one that’s healing slowly. So, ready or not, Bird was asked to replace the Yankees’ most productive run-producer. That’s a lot of weight to put on a 22-year-old who started the year in Class AA and wasn’t supposed to transition to the Bronx until 2016 at the earliest.
But Bird is blessed with power to all fields, patience at the plate and what Girardi calls “a slow clock.” The choice of words might be odd, but the manager means Birds is remarkably calm, even reminding Girardi of a young Miguel Cabrera, who’s about as unflustered as it gets.
Bird has been on full display all week at the Stadium – not hyperventilating, but rewarding the Yankees’ faith in him with every at-bat. Remember, it was Brian Cashman who refused to budge when other teams kept trying to pluck Bird away at the trade deadline. The general manager had a sense of what was just around the corner. All Bird needed was the chance.
Turns out Bird beat the Twins single-handedly, crushing the first two HRs of his career in the fourth and sixth innings. That was just enough breathing room for Eovaldi, who took a perfect game into the sixth. The right-hander maxed out at 102 mph on the radar gun and would’ve been the star of the day had the Twins not finally broken through with three runs in the sixth.
Bird took care of starter Earvin Santana, first nailing a fastball over wall in right, then jumping on his change-up for the second HR. The Twins’ starter was less than impressed with Bird’s power display, however, telling reporters after the game, “In another park [that home run is] probably a double. But here it’s a joke.”
The Yankees won’t apologize for the short porch – the dimensions are the same for both teams, after all – but it sure makes Bird’s swing more dangerous against right-handed pitching. Add in that “What, me worry?” demeanor, and you have the makings of a pennant-race asset.
Bird is remarkably humble for a fast-track prospect, maybe because he was largely ignored in the 2011 draft. The Yankees picked him in the fifth round as other teams were unimpressed or unaware that Bird was still available.
Growing up in Colorado didn’t help his Q-rating; scouts tend to ignore high school players from that part of the country, partly because of unfavorable weather and the high altitude, which skews offensive statistics.
Bird used the snub to his advantage, working his way up the Yankees’ system with one only thought in mind: Be ready.
“You put in your work every day and do your job,” Bird said. “It’s an honor to put on this uniform and play in front of these fans.”
Bird smiled and exhaled. His parents were in attendance throughout the series to see their son – “crazy week” he said – and turned to acknowledge them when the Stadium crowd rose as one in the sixth inning, demanding a curtain call.
How long does the feel-good narrative last? It largely depends on Teixeira’s injury; the longer he needs to heal, the more we’ll see of Bird. The Yankees like to think of him as a second-tier player for now, but crazier things have happened in September.
Just look at Eovaldi, who fattened his record to 13-2 after unleashing his best stuff of the year against Minnesota. No one imagines Eovaldi anywhere near the mound in a Game 1 or Game 7 postseason scenario, but try telling that to the Twins, who were helpless with the stunning differential in his velocity readings.
In any given sequence, Eovaldi could hit 100 with his fastball, drop in a 77-mph curveball or make the bottom drop out of his splitter at 90. The Twins were happy just to make contact, at least for those first five innings. He finished with 15 swings and misses, although it felt like dozens more.
Eovaldi said, “I was really locked in” and admitted it’s rare that the moving parts are so perfectly aligned. But if ever there was a day for synchronicity, it was Wednesday afternoon, when a rookie, asked to carry the lineup for a day hits two HRs.
Someone asked Bird how it felt to rule the world, even for a day.
“Great,” is what he said, smiling so broadly his eyes turned to slits.