Funny how the injury bug works. If you had taken a poll at the start of spring training on the Yankee who was least likely to make it to Opening Day, Troy Tulowitzki probably would have joined Greg Bird atop the list, at least in the non-Jacoby Ellsbury division.
On Monday, while Ellsbury went through the process of beginning baseball activities in Tampa, Tulowitzki and Bird played actual (exhibition) baseball at Nationals Park in Washington.
“To be at a big-league stadium again was cool,’’ Tulowitzki said. “Honestly, I felt calm. I felt like I was in a place I belonged.”
Tulowitzki homered and Bird banged a double off the leftfield wall as both finished off a strong spring training in the Yankees’ 5-3 loss. Both are expected to be in the Opening Day lineup on Thursday when the Yankees host the Orioles.
Tulowitzki hasn’t played in a major-league game since July 2017 because of surgeries on both heels. Bird has earned the label of “oft-injured” and just escaped a scare at the end of spring training when he was hit by a pitch in the right elbow.
Tulowitzki will be the Yankees’ shortstop until Didi Gregorius returns from Tommy John surgery. Bird will share first base and designated hitter with Luke Voit at least until Aaron Hicks returns from the confounding back injury that has him starting the season on the injured list along with Ellsbury, Gregorius, Luis Severino, Dellin Betances and CC Sabathia (once he serves a five-game suspension for his part in a dustup with the Rays last September).
Tulowitzki and Bird were among the many Yankees hitters who had productive spring seasons. Tulowitzki hit just .242, but added four home runs and finished with an OPS of .970.
“His at-bats of late have gotten better and better as he’s worked on different things with his timing,’’ manager Aaron Boone said. “It’s good to see him have good at-bats.’’
Tulowitzki is a five-time All-Star who was once one of the best shortstops in baseball. Just making it to Thursday in one piece is the first step to re-establishing his career.
“Knowing myself, that’s not my ultimate goal,” Tulowitzki said. “I didn’t want to just get back. It was to do much more than that. To help the Yankees win games, and I get to start that in a couple of days. Just thinking of taking the field on Opening Day, it will be cool when it happens. I didn’t know what I was in for. I didn’t know if I’d stay on schedule, play nine innings or go back-to-back. But my body held up. I feel good and I’m excited about that.”
Bird was locked in what looked like a losing battle with Voit for first base and seemed to be ticketed for Triple-A to start the season. But when it became clear Hicks wasn’t going to be ready, Brett Gardner moved to center and Giancarlo Stanton shifted to left, opening up the DH spot for either Bird or Voit. Since Bird is the better defender, he’ll likely see more time at first.
Bird hit .333 with three home runs and a 1.143 OPS in spring training. Other Yankee regulars with gaudy exhibition season OPS totals: Aaron Judge (1.394), Gardner (1.147), Stanton (1.063), Gleyber Torres (1.017) and Voit (.943). Miguel Andujar hit .347 with an .842 OPS.
Only Gary Sanchez struggled among the regulars, with a .211 batting average and a .593 OPS. The Yankees are glad Sanchez is healthy after offseason shoulder surgery and hope his bat will catch up with the rest of the team in time.