TAMPA, Fla. — It’s an age-old axiom that in the early part of spring training, the pitchers are ahead of the hitters.
But in a pair of simulated games Thursday morning that included two members of the Yankees’ rotation — Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton — that wasn’t the case.
Greg Bird, considered the underdog to Luke Voit for the starting job at first base, hit a long homer off the scoreboard in right-center off Tanaka. Facing the lefthanded Paxton next, the lefthanded-hitting Bird lasered a single to left.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “I just want to play. I know I have to play, we can talk all day, but I have to play, so that’s one step closer to playing at game speed.”
The 6-4 Bird added 20 pounds, he estimated, in the offseason, reporting to camp at 230. Knowing the uphill battle he would face in spring training, Bird, who lives in Tampa, has been working out at the club’s minor-league complex since early January.
General manager Brian Cashman and manager Aaron Boone have said that Voit, who hit 14 homers after seizing the starting job from Bird on Aug. 24, would enter spring training with “a leg up'' in the competition. They also said Bird would have a chance to change the script.
“The one thing about Greg, even last year, when he was struggling at his most, he controls the strike zone, and in his first at-bats today, that was apparent,” Boone said.
Bird missed all of 2016 recovering from shoulder surgery, was limited to 48 games in 2017 because of a bone bruise in his right ankle and had the start of his 2018 season delayed because of another surgery on his right foot.
“I just got back to where I needed to be to get my swing off,” Bird said of the impact of finally having an offseason in which he wasn’t rehabbing something. “The last two weeks, I’ve been looking forward to seeing some live pitching because it gets to a point where taking BP and hitting in the cage, you need to see a live pitch to kind of figure out where you’re at. Then you can figure out, this is what I need to work on. That was nice today to kind of get a feel for that.”
Boone said righthander Nestor Cortes Jr., who finished last season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, will start Sunday’s Grapefruit League opener in Fort Myers against the Red Sox. Jonathan Loaisiga, who made the jump from Double-A Trenton to start four games for the Yankees last season, will start Sunday in Port Charlotte against the Rays. Among the position players going to Fort Myers: Bird, Aaron Hicks, Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar.