TAMPA, Fla. – Gary Sanchez finally took the first significant step toward putting a 2018 season he has described as “bad” behind him.
Sanchez, brought along at a slower pace than the rest of his teammates because of offseason surgery on his left shoulder, made his Grapefruit League debut Friday night against the Orioles in a 2-2 tie at Steinbrenner Field.
Starting behind the plate and batting cleanup, Sanchez had a quiet night in his four innings. He went 0-for-2 (Orioles centerfielder Austin Hays made a nice catch on a sinking liner with two on in the third) and had a clean game catching lefthander James Paxton, righthander Chad Green and righthander Jonathan Loaisiga.
“I thought he did a great job tonight,” said Paxton, who struck out three, walked one and allowed a homer in two innings-plus.
Sanchez said through his translator: “Feeling good. Every day I’m feeling better and better. It felt normal, like a typical spring training game. It was good to get in a game and get some at-bats, see pitching and get an opportunity to catch Paxton for the first time.”
He said the issue with his shoulder is completely behind him. “Felt good, felt healthy, which is the important part of this right now,” said Sanchez, who expects to play again Sunday. “Health is No. 1 and I felt good.”
Sanchez, who was at the club’s minor-league complex working with pitchers about two weeks before official report day Feb. 13, consistently has said the shoulder issue that eventually required offseason surgery wasn’t the reason for his disappointing 2018.
“I can’t use that as an excuse,” Sanchez said Feb. 14, the first workout day for pitchers and catchers. “Injuries are part of the game. It was definitely a tough season full of different adversities for sure, but I can’t use that as an excuse. Have to put that year behind me and focus on this year.”
Last year, of course, was a miserable one, one in which he led the majors for a second straight year in passed balls with 18 (he allowed 16 in 2017). But defense had always been a question with Sanchez. Hitting never was -- until last year, when Sanchez, who had two separate stints on the disabled list because of a right groin strain, produced a .186/.291/.406 slash line, 18 homers and 53 RBIs.
Aaron Boone, speaking before Friday’s game, didn’t use Sanchez’s shoulder as an excuse, though he left open the possibility that it had at least some effect.
“I knew it was something that was probably nagging him at different times,” Boone said. “But I also felt like he was fine to impact the ball. I don’t necessarily feel like it was holding him back. I’m sure he grinded through some issues with it, though.”
How much Sanchez’s 2018 season held the Yankees back was a topic throughout the year, though in the end, they did win 100 games. What isn’t debatable is that he will be among the most scrutinized Yankees in spring training and into the regular season. A bounce-back year would go a long way toward the Yankees being able to surpass the Red Sox in the AL East.