Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez flips his bat after hitting a home run during the third inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 9, 2016 at Yankee Stadium
By Randy Miller
Been there, done that.
This third trip in 12 months to the big leagues was different from the first two.
This time the Dominican catcher really believed that he was ready for baseball’s highest level.
He’d worn the elite prospect tag since signing with the Yankees for $3 million as a 16-year-old in July 2009, and now as a 23-year-old, he figured his time to start giving the organization a payback had arrived.
His plan wasn’t to steal seven-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann’s job within a week and immediately prove his status as an elite prospect by going on a for-the-ages home run surge.
“Work hard and be ready to play,” Sanchez told himself again and again.
This simple strategy led into a two-month run that Yankees fans never will forget, one in which a rookie who wasn’t known for being a big home run guy darn near carried them all the way to the playoffs after management went through with a summer fire sale.
Even now that some time has passed, it’s still hard to believe that Sanchez hit 20 homers in 53 games last season, all of them coming after that third promotion from the International League’s Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
American League Rookie of the Year voters were paying attention, but ultimately Sanchez being with the Yankees for just a third of the season cost him the award, which would have been a Yankee first since Derek Jeter in 1996.
Detroit Tigers right-handed starter Michael Fulmer (11-7, 3.06 ERA, 26 starts) was named the winner Monday night, while Sanchez finished second and Cleveland Indians center fielder Tyler Paquin (.296, 14 HR, 43 RBIs, 116 games) finished third.
The voting wasn’t close, as Fulmer received 26 of the 30 first-place votes and four seconds on the 30 ballots — two from each AL city — compared to four firsts, 23 seconds and two thirds for Sanchez. Naquin was on just 16 ballots, as he received two seconds and 14 thirds.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi thinks the voters got it wrong.
“I can tell you Gary’s meant as much to this team as any rookie in the big leagues this year, and he’s only been here, what, a month and a half?” Girardi said on Sept. 28. “That’s how important he has been. I think Fulmer’s had a great year, but if I had a vote it’d be for Gary.”
Until August, Sanchez had played three big-league games … two during the final week of the 2015 season and another this past May when he was called up to DH one game and was sent right back to Triple-A taking an 0-for-4 facing Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale.
His third call-up turned out to be more of a charm than anyone could dreamed up.
Two days after the trade deadline, the Yankees were a .500 club when Sanchez joined them for good for an Aug. 3 Subway Series game at Yankee Stadium. He got his first hit that night off Mets pitcher Steven Matz, then had two more than next night off two Mets All-Stars, Bartolo Colon and Jeurys Familia.
Homer No. 1 came six more days later when he hit one out to center at Fenway Park facing Japanese righty Junichi Tazawa, and that was the start of a wild stretch in which he hit 11 homers in 15 games. Another long ball binge came in September when he went deep eight games in 11 games, and his 20 for the season made him just the third Yankee to hit that many after Aug. 1. The first two set single-season home run records when they did it, Babe Ruth in 1927 and Roger Maris in 1961.
Sanchez cooled off in the final two weeks of the season, but still finished with a .299 average and 42 RBIs to go with his 20 homers in 53 games.
“It’s something crazy,” Mark Teixeira said late in the season. “And it’s not like he’s just getting them out. He’s hitting home runs 450 feet. He’s crushing balls. The double down the line was as hard of a hit double as you’ll ever see. This guy is just squaring up balls like I don’t think I’ve ever seen.”
As incredible ride as this ride that Sanchez gave to all of Yankee nation, it was a little unfulfilling of him because team success matters more than personal success.
“These two months were great,” Sanchez told NJ Advance Media on the final week of the season. “I was fortunate enough to have a good season overall. It’s hard work. I tried to give it everything I had. But we tried to make the playoffs and we didn’t.”
Sanchez almost got them there. The Yankees were just a game out of a Wild Card spot on Sept. 10, which is amazing considering management had blown up the team about six weeks earlier trading Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova.
The Yankees knew Sanchez had the potential to be something special, but nobody was comparing him to Ruth when he was wowing scouts with his throwing arm and raw power as a minor leaguer.
By August, however, people were bringing up the Bambino.
“Shoot, if Babe Ruth was hitting behind (Sanchez), you’d intentionally walk him,” Teixeira said. “He’s as hot as any player I’ve ever played with in my entire career. You just don’t see guys doing what he’s doing.”