David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Travis Hafner began Wednesday night's game on the bench. But as he rode the stationary bike, or jogged in place, or even took swings in the clubhouse batting cages to stay ready, Hafner must have dreamed about the type of pitch that Diamondbacks reliever David Hernandez would throw him later that night in the eighth inning.
Just your basic two-seam fastball, 96 mph, maybe a few inches above the belt.
Oh, and right down the middle of the plate.
If Hafner could order off a menu, that would be his choice. And just like Domino's, Hernandez delivered, a first-pitch fastball so tasty that Hafner drilled it to the back of the blue bleacher seats in right-centerfield. No short porch needed this time.
D-backs manager Kirk Gibson still seemed a little dizzy after Hafner's blast that vaulted the Yankees to a comeback 4-3 victory.
"Obviously," Gibson said, "not a good spot to throw it."
There's a reason the Yankees signed the oft-injured Hafner to a $2-million contract this offseason -- amid all the snickering -- and told him to leave his glove at home. If healthy, Hafner can do serious damage from the DH spot, and what he did to Hernandez was reminiscent of how the Yankees used to flex their muscles in the not-so-distant past.
That quick-strike capability, and a habit of making the Stadium play like a Wiffle-Ball game in someone's backyard, had been a pinstriped trademark since the operation moved across the street in 2009. But with a few of the team's most lethal bats still on the disabled list, Hafner and Robinson Cano are really the only intimidators left. Cano had been doing the bulk of the damage lately before Hafner made himself heard Wednesday night. It felt like a blast from the past.
"There was a real special year that we did that a lot -- 2009 -- where we had a lot of these type of wins where we came from behind and then we ended up getting a pinch hit late," Joe Girardi said. "Haf has the ability to make a ballpark look small -- it doesn't matter really which ballpark it is. But that's ability he has and that's why we like him."
Hafner is a DH by trade, so hanging around waiting for a chance to bat wasn't much of a problem for him on this occasion. His concern was trying to anticipate how Hernandez might attack him. In the eighth inning, with the score tied at 3, Hernadez threw Robinson Cano four straight curveballs, and Cano lined the fourth one into the glove of the second baseman.
Next up was Kevin Youkilis, who got three consecutive fastballs, in the 95-96 range, before freezing on a curveball for strike three. The cat-and-mouse game continued with Hafner, who stepped up and swung away at the best pitch he's ever going to see, from anybody, anywhere.
It had some heat on it, but for a professional hitter like Hafner, the location was in a spot that Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen likes to refer to as the "Nitro Zone." Velocity without good location is not going to beat someone like Hafner.
"I've got to be ready for that," Hafner said. "You don't necessarily want to go back [to the bench] only getting one swing. Usually you try to be aggressive and getting good pitches is the main thing in that spot."
There was little doubt where that particular pitch was headed as soon as Hafner connected. As soon as he saw it destined for the bleachers, Hafner clapped his hands together and sped around the bases. CC Sabathia, who had Hafner to thank for his victory, was not surprised to see his former Indians teammate come up big. "In this ballpark, with his power, all it takes is the right pitch," Sabathia said. "And he got that today."
It was Hafner's fourth pinch-hit homer of his career, and the first to give the Yankees a lead in the eighth inning or later since 2010, when Jorge Posada's solo shot in the 10th inning snapped a 7-7 tie. So far this season, Hafner has helped pick up the slack for a hurting lineup, batting .342 with two doubles, four homers and eight RBIs.
"I've seen Haf when he's locked in," Sabathia said, then joked, "so I expect him to do a lot more than what he's done."
Hafner laughed, too. "Well, that's good to know," he said.
Then Hafner left the clubhouse, probably to go home and dream about more fastballs.