20 Up, 20 Down

Bronx, N.Y., April 10, 2017; Yankees 8, Tampa 1 — “Big Mike” Pineda and Mother Nature collaborated in giving Yankee fans one of their best days in years, perhaps decades, Monday afternoon in the Bronx. The offense chipped in with three home runs, but Pineda was clearly the reason the team came away with an 8-1 victory in the home opener.

The game was played under bright sunshine and near 80-degree temps to the delight of 46,000-plus screaming, delighted fans. There is always excitement aplenty for this game, and the music chosen to introduce the festivities, borrowed, it seemed, from Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, upped the expectation that we were about to see something truly memorable. Three members of the WBC-winning USA club, and guys with pinstriped bona fides — Joe Torre, Tino Martinez, and Willie Randolph (I always yell “Captain!” when I see him, because he was) — threw out ceremonial first pitches once the Yankees had taken the field.

And Pineda took over from there, retiring the side in the first by striking out Evan Longoria on one of many masterful sliders that baffled Rays batters all afternoon. A procession of strike outs, and dominant innings, followed, every frame a three-chapter demonstration of perfect power pitching.

And it was fortunate too, because Tampa righty Alex Cobb was dealing as well. But his wild pitch on his third strike out, facing Brett Gardner leading off the bottom of the third, gave the Yankees the crack they needed, and Jacoby Ellsbury drove his outfield compatriot home with a sharp double to right center. The following inning right fielder Aaron Judge, who went down swinging on three pitches his first time up, took the two-strike pitch off the plate, and another, then lifted a long, majestic fly to left for his second home run in two days, and a 2-0 lead. And that’s the way it stood until Chase Headley took Cobb downtown on the first pitch of the seventh. One of the many questions this team needs to answer revolves around Judge, home runs, and strike outs. The early returns look good. Pineda, as big a puzzle as this team has, was now free to improvise, knowing no batter could tie the game with a long ball.

And Big Mike rolled on, striking out five through four, then two more in the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh. He pounded first-pitch strikes to 20 of 25 batters, kept the visitors from looking for his slider and the occasional change with consistent 96-mph heat, and finished with a superb 67/26 strikes/balls ratio. Ten of 11 strike out victims went down swinging, a stat evidenced by the 19 swings and misses the tall righthander coaxed from his victims.

The atmosphere in the stands was electric from the start, but the degree to which it grew as Tampa batter after batter dejectedly strolled back to the dugout was off the charts. Multitudes were standing and clapping on strike two by the fourth. The fans shared a collective holding of their breath as lefthanded center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, with the defense overshifted to right field, lofted a fly past third base with one down in the seventh, but the speedy Gardner tracked it down; you could hear the shared sigh of relief when it nestled into his glove.

Then it was over, suddenly, as Longoria pulled the next pitch into the left field corner for a double, the 20 up, 20 down, was at an end. Momentarily disappointed, the throng stood and applauded what Michael had given them. I was in the old stadium for Doc Gooden’s no-hitter in 1996, and for both David Wells’s and David Cone’s perfectos in 1998 and 1999, respectively. Ramiro Mendoza retired the first 19 to the plate around the same time. Wonderful days in the ballpark. But this was Opening Day!

Pineda struck out Brad Miller to end the seventh, and one out into the eighth, Logan Morrison reached him for a homer to right. Derek Norris smacked Mike’s next pitch, his last, down the third base line, but Headley dove, snagged it, and threw him out. Joe Girardi removed Pineda to a thunderous ovation. Tampa suffered through an ugly, two-error, five-run bottom of the eighth, featuring a Chris Carter triple and Starlin Castro home run, but really, they were a beaten team by then, Cobb’s seven-strike-out, six-hit outing notwithstanding. The Yankee pen finished them off quickly, but this was no blowout. This was a work of art.

Commodore Matthew Perry, who served in the Mexican-American War and the War of 1812, but who is perhaps best known for having “opened” Japan — however you view the event through your historical and geopolitical perspective — by sailing several Navy vessels into Tokyo harbor in 1853, was born on April 10, 1794. Two hundred twenty-three years later, Michael Pineda opened the Yankee home season by going,

20 Up, 20 Down