Thairo Estrada grew up watching Felix Hernandez on his television screen — the hard-throwing righty with the royal nickname and the adulation of thousands of Venezuelan kids just like him. King Felix had grown up just one town over, and was only 10 years older than Estrada, and he embodied a sort of dream for a young baseball player with talent and ambition.
Aptly, dream was the word Estrada used when he talked about Monday night.
That would be the day that the rookie, in his first major-league start at Yankee Stadium, stepped into the box against his childhood idol. The first pitch he saw was an 89-mph fastball on the top part of the strike zone — Hernandez has lost some zip from earlier in his career — and Estrada knew it had a chance to go out about as soon as he took his hack.
“When you take everything into consideration . . . I think it’s my first game here [starting] at Yankee Stadium and facing Felix, it means a lot,” he said after the Yankees 7-3 win against the Mariners, and his first major-league home run. “I did watch a lot of [Hernandez’s] games as a kid. It’s kind of like a dream to face him and be able to connect there.”
Estrada’s two-run homer, which landed in right-center, gave the Yankees a 4-0 lead at the time and was greeted by absolute silence in the dugout. Oh, they were plenty excited, CC Sabathia said. They just like to have a little fun at the rookie’s expense, too.
“At the beginning they were sitting down and not saying much, which I found strange,” Estrada said. “After the following pitch, they got up and they congratulated me. It’s fun. That’s the kind of team we have. It shows the unity that we can see in this team and I’m happy about it.”
What’s more, his performance further embodied Aaron Boone’s dogged philosophy in these first two, injury-riddled months: next man up. Sometimes, that man is Miguel Andujar or Clint Frazier, both of whom have returned from the injured list in the last few days. But more often, it’s been a player like Estrada, who has anonymously but seamlessly plugged a hole.
“He’s been one of those guys,” Boone said. “You can point to a lot of guys who have come up and had a hand in us winning game . . . Everything you throw at him, he’s not overwhelmed by it. He’s just stepped up for us in a limited role and played a big part for us.”
Estrada’s home run was so unexpected — he had only 20 in seven minor-league seasons — that John Sterling didn’t even have a call ready.
Mostly, Estrada was brought on because of his defensive versatility, which shined when he made an excellent play at shortstop in the sixth, saving a run and ending a threat.
With the bases loaded, two outs and Adam Ottavino on to protect a four-run lead, Tim Beckman chopped a slowly-hit ground ball to shortstop. Estrada gloved the ball, threw in one motion, and toppled to the grass and got Beckman by a hair.
“I mentally prepared there, right before that pitch,” Estrada said. “Once he hit the ball, I said to myself, ‘this is my ground ball to get.’ I went and got it and made the play and I was very excited that I was able to make the play.”
After it was all done, Estrada had his home run ball, and his congratulations and fulfilled a dream. He’s the first player from Bejuma to make it to the big leagues, he said, and he’s sure that they’re watching him back home.
They’re “probably going to be very excited,” he said. “I’m sure I’m going to go back to my phone and I’m going to find many messages.”
He would know. Just a little while ago, he was on the other side: watching Felix Hernandez, feeling the same way.