Opening Day at Steinbrenner Field is always laced with anticipation and hope. Pair that with a very hot 82-degree very sunny day, and it feels like the Boys of Summer are back. The boys in navy blue pinstripes on one side, their opponents in fire engine red on the other. It is the 20th season of Yankees’ Spring Training at Steinbrenner Field (formerly Legends Field) in Tampa, and under the Florida sunshine, the national anthem and flag unfurled by soldiers stationed at nearby MacDill Airforce Base gently reminded the 9,673 fans that baseball season started.
Nathan Eovaldi got the start for today’s game against the visiting Phillies, an assumed candidate for the starting rotation, and rightly so. His fastball peaked around 97-98 mph consistently, something that made the crowd take notice as the ball snapped loudly into McCann’s waiting glove. Eovaldi gave up 2 hits and 1 run, striking out 1 batter. That single run allowed, a double that came home on a solid single in the 2nd inning, cost Eovaldi the game in the end, but not for lack of trying.
The Yankees were definitely shaking off the rust of both the offseason and the newness of many of their new teammates. I know it takes some time to get used to playing together, especially when some of these guys won’t see a day in the Bronx this season (if ever). By the time the team is whittled down to the final 25, I expect to see some gelling and fluidity that is often lacking this early in the Spring; even in years where there are minimal changes to the roster, it still takes time to remember how to play together again.
The Yankees let the Phillies add another run in the 5th inning. A single into center field scored the runner from 3rd, but the runner at 2nd tried to make it home as well and got caught in a rundown between Chase Headley and Brian McCann before McCann finally tagged him out at home. The Phillies were up 2-0 over the Yankees, but that play signaled to me that players like McCann and Headley are ready for more great plays once again.
In the bottom of the 6th, the Yankees found themselves suddenly in scoring position for the first time in the game. The change over from the “big guys” to the “other guys” in the 5th allowed for the “other guys” to show their stuff. The Yankees loaded the bases with a leadoff double from Mason Williams, a single by Cito Culver, and a walk from Alex Rodriguez (more on him in a bit), so Gary Sanchez’s sacrifice fly could easily score Williams and put the Yankees on the board.
The Phillies notched one more run onto their score in the 7th with an RBI single, and the Yankees took their cue from yesterday to jazz up the 9th with some drama. After 2 quick outs, Arcia smacked a ground-rule double into right-center field and Figueroa’s single put runners on the corners. The crowd alive with anticipation, hoping for a last-minute reprieve, but it was not to be today. The next batter was called out on high strikes, and the game was over. 3-1 Phillies.
A good portion of the talk today centered on the return of Alex Rodriguez to pinstripes after his year-long suspension last year. He last played for the Yankees on September 25, 2013, and after almost 18 months away from baseball, there was mixed chatter and reception about how he might do back in the swing of things. Primarily DH-ing this year (with perhaps some time at 3rd and 1st), Rodriguez’s main focus will be hitting, that merit he for which he was a hot contender in free agency 12 years ago, before signing with the Yankees. Today, Rodriguez’s first at-bat was a quick 2 swinging strikes and then a hit, followed up by a groundout, and then a full-count walk in the 6th. So officially Rodriguez is already batting .500 this season. Not a bad comeback for 18 months off baseball.
And the defensive play of the game was easily a long throw from replacement shortstop Cito Culver to 1st base in the 9th inning. Culver chased down the grounder into short left field, almost behind 3rd base, and threw it clear across the diamond to make the out at 1st. For most other defenders, that would result in a single, but not today. The whole crowd oohed and awed at the young player’s strength and grace to pull off the feat.
And there’s still so much baseball left to play!