Tampa, Fla., February 23, 2018; Yankees 3, Tigers 1 — It may have been Chinese New Year last week, but for millions and millions of fans in the U.S. and around the world, the year began today, February 23. The Yankees hosted the Tigers in Tampa, cruising to a 3-1 win in a contest where the pitching dominated, as the clubs split 12 hits between them. It was hot and steamy, and if you’re thinking that’s a bad thing, you don’t live in the North where it gets cold.
In some ways for Yankee fans, it was old home week, as Pete Kozma (who started at third for Detroit), Johnny Barbato (he pitched the third inning for the Tigers), and Mark Montgomery (two strike outs while allowing a single to New York in the eighth) all trained with the Yankees in Tampa last year, carrying names many fans could easily remember. But you needed to reach a bit further back to recall Detroit left fielder Chad Huffman, who gave the visitors a 1-0 lead off Luis Cessa in the top of the first on a single to left center. Huffman, a local kid to the New York area, had a large family contingent in Yankee Stadium in 2010 when, during a nine-game pinstriped stint, he got his first hit in the big leagues. Twelve games with the 2017 Cardinals represents the rest of his resume so far, but he had to be thrilled with today’s hit.
Cessa, who struggled with ineffectiveness and then injury for the Yanks last year, deserved better as the only Yankee hurler to allow a run. Über prospect Gleyber Torres, the home team starter at second, made a good play to reach Leonys Martin’s ground ball up the middle leading off the game, but he couldn’t maintain control of the ball, and Martin had an infield single. Although he would surrender the run on the Huffman single two outs later, Cessa responded by striking out two straight, and retiring the side in order in the second on nine pitches. Ben Heller, David Hale, Brady Lail, Caleb Coshow, and Giovanny Gallegos blanked the Bengals on just four hits over the next seven, though the visitors did put two on in the fourth, fifth, seventh, and ninth innings.
The Yankees didn’t do much on offense either, and neither Torres nor Miguel Andujar — the rookie infielders with a shot at making the Yankees on Opening Day at second and third, respectively — came up with a hit; both had passing grades in the field. But there were offensive stars, with nonroster catcher Jorge Saez having the biggest impact. He stroked singles his first two times up, and knocked in the game winners with a one-base hit up the middle in the Yanks’ three-run sixth. Most impressive at the plate was first baseman Tyler Austin, who after lining hard just foul in the fifth, forced Detroit center fielder Mike Gerber to make the game’s best play, as he speared Austin’s hard liner to the wall. Austin also flied to the warning track in center in the seventh.
But aside from the Saez singles, the game-changing at bats — on the negative and positive sides — came from Tyler Wade, Danny Espinosa and Jack Cave. Wade, who went 2-for-2, started the winning rally with a hustle double to left center in the sixth. Then Espinosa, swinging from his heels to 0-2 two batters later, got a break when Tigers southpaw Austin Sodders hit him with an 0-2 pitch. Cave immediately plated the equalizer with a bouncer to first. Saez’s single gave the Yanks the lead, but Cave singled in the eighth as well.
I’m glad to add that on this, which would have been star Yankee catcher Elston Howard’s 89th birthday, backstop Austin Romine delivered the first 2018 Yankee hit, a two-out double to right in the second. I’m less comfortable describing the top of the ninth delivered by Gallegos, which got off to a bad start when he struck out third sacker Harold Castro, only to have him reach on a wild pitch. A one-out walk put the tying runs on, and Gerber’s windblown fly to center had disaster written all over it. But Estevan Florial, another Bomber targeted for glory, stumbled this way and that, before making a lunging grab. A six-pitch strike out followed, and the win was in the books.
Last year, a surprising Yankee team raced out to a 9-2 start to their Spring campaign, and naysayers of all stripes (even pinstripes) warned that these games mean nothing. And they don’t. But they’re more fun to win than to lose, and sometimes positive vibes accumulate, then build, and before you know it, you’re in-season and your team is in it. On this day in 1964, fictional character Dana Katherine Scully, costar of the sci-fi TV hit X-Files, was born.
Having witnessed very successful Spring seasons and others much less so over the last 30 years, I’m happy that 2018 starts with a win, one for the W-Files.