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Yankees’ Dustin Fowler ruptures right patella tendon in first inning of MLB debut

New York Yankees' Dustin Fowler sits on the

New York Yankees' Dustin Fowler sits on the field after suffering an injury during the first inning of the team's baseball game against the Chicago White Sox on Thursday, June 29, 2017, in Chicago. Credit: AP / Nam Y. Huh

CHICAGO — The newest Yankee became the latest to go down, creating a stirring and memorable visual of Joe Girardi covering his face so as not to look.

Dustin Fowler, a top outfield prospect called up to the majors Thursday afternoon and immediately put in the lineup as the starting rightfielder in his major-league debut, suffered an open rupture of his right patella tendon when he ran into the wall at full speed while chasing a foul ball in the first inning of Thursday night’s 4-3 loss to the White Sox.

The Yankees said Fowler, 22, was scheduled to have surgery Thursday night at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “You’re looking at at least six months,” Girardi said of the time frame involved in Fowler’s recovery.

Fowler, brought up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre because of the conga line of Yankees who have hit the disabled list this week, slammed his right leg against the wall while pursuing a two-out foul ball hit by Jose Abreu.

After extricating himself from the fans, he took a step back, then collapsed to the ground, unable to put any weight on the leg. Girardi sprinted out to rightfield, along with coaches Rob Thomson and Tony Peña and trainers Steve Donohue and Michael Schuk, as concerned teammates in the field and the dugout looked on. As he stood over the fallen Fowler, Girardi briefly covered his face with both hands.

Said Girardi, “I was in tears. Because I know what it takes to get here and how hard he’s worked and what’s supposed to be an exciting day for him turns into a really bad day. I’m still in disbelief. I’m in tears for the kid. I know he’ll fight his way back, but he’s out for a while. It just doesn’t seem fair that that’s what happened.”

What did Girardi say to Fowler? “I just tried to comfort him a little bit because I knew he was in pain and I could see the way his knee looked and it just didn’t look good and it scared me for him.”

Eventually, Fowler’s right knee area was put in a large plastic brace and he was taken off the field on a cart. As the leadoff hitter in the second inning, he would have batted in a major-league game for the first time.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be good,’’ Brett Gardner said. “One of the worst things I’ve seen on a baseball field. I think back with Derek and his ankle and Mariano and his knee. It’s hard to compare a kid who hasn’t been in the big leagues before to those two guys, but I just can’t imagine a worse scenario for him. Just very heartbreaking. A really good kid and a really, really, really good player with a bright future. Hope that his surgery goes OK.”

Said Aaron Judge, “I didn’t see the play, nor do I want to see, but it just makes you sick. About to debut, about to lead off the next inning and then something like that happens . . . I was sick to my stomach.”

Referring to the need to bring up another outfielder, Girardi said, “We’re going to talk about that.’’

Girardi was upset about the low walls in foul ground (at more than a few ballparks) and the exposed electrical box Fowler crashed into. “To me, it’s something that needs to be corrected — shortened walls,’’ he said. “But that wasn’t the problem on that. There was an electrical box that’s about halfway up to his knee and he hit the electrical box and it sits this far back [Girardi held his hands a few inches apart] from the fence. To me, that’s a problem. I’m not blaming the White Sox, but it’s something that needs to be inspected. It should have been padded or not put there, or put lower. Because if the kid doesn’t hit the electrical box, he might still be hurt, but my guess is he doesn’t rupture his patella tendon.”

He added, “I’ve seen what happens when you hit half-walls. And I know it’s the way the stadium is designed, but I think it’s something baseball needs to address. Maybe you put up plexiglass so they can’t flip over, and people can look through it. They look through it in hockey. We saw it happen to Carlos [Beltran in 2014 at Tampa Bay] and Carlos had three different MRIs because of flipping over a lower wall . . . You say you want players to play hard, so when you do run hard, sometimes this is what happens if the field doesn’t protect the players.”

Fowler’s injury was a brutal start to what already had been a brutal night, and one that would become even more so in front of 21,032 at Guaranteed Rate Field.

Only a few hundred of them were left when former Yankee David Robertson earned his 12th save in 13 chances with a scoreless ninth, striking out Judge to end it.

The game did not start until 11:01 p.m. EDT after a 2-hour, 50-minute rain delay and did not end until 2 a.m. EDT.

Rookie Tyler Wade led off the ninth by driving one to the warning track in left-center, but centerfielder Adam Engel chased it down. Gardner singled with two outs, giving Judge — who walked three times in the game to extend his on-base streak to 31 games — a chance. But Judge, who had been robbed of his 28th home run by Melky Cabrera in the fifth inning, struck out swinging at a 2-and-2 curveball in the dirt.

The Yankees (42-35), who split the four-game series against the White Sox (34-44), then faced a 2-hour, 40-minute flight to Houston, where they will start a three-game series Friday night against the American League’s top team, the Astros.

Rob Refsnyder replaced Fowler in rightfield and dropped a two-out fly ball in the second inning, opening the door for two unearned runs that gave the White Sox a 2-1 lead. Willy Garcia broke a 2-2 tie with a two-out, two-run double in the fourth.

In the fifth, Cabrera robbed Judge, going high to make the catch, turning toward the fans and looking into the stands, and waiting several seconds before showing the umpires that he had the ball.

With two outs and the bases empty in the seventh, White Sox manager Rick Renteria chose to intentionally walk Judge. Didi Gregorius made the decision pay off, grounding out to first on the first pitch he saw.

Fowler’s injury produced a sad end to a day that had begun so well for him. “Obviously overwhelmed right now,” Fowler — who landed at O’Hare International from Syracuse at about 3 p.m. and, after a bit of Chicago traffic, arrived in the clubhouse about 1 ½ hours later — had said Thursday afternoon. “I’m very excited, glad to be here. It was nice to be in spring training so there’s a lot of familiar faces. It’s been a hectic day. Hectic yesterday too, but glad to finally be here. Obviously, your mind’s going a million miles an hour.”

Fowler, an 18th-round selection by the Yankees in 2013, had a .293/.329/.542 slash line, 13 homers, 49 runs and 43 RBIs in 70 games for Scranton. He also had 19 doubles and eight triples.

Fowler became the third Yankees rookie to make his MLB debut in as many days, following in the footsteps of Wade on Tuesday night and Miguel Andujar on Wednesday night. “He’s going to play,” Girardi had said of Fowler.

Wade’s opportunity came about after Starlin Castro hit the disabled list with a right hamstring strain. Aaron Hicks went to the DL on Monday with a right oblique strain.

“We’re young,” Girardi said of the sudden remake of his roster. “And it’s something that was a focus. I think we did a really good job of rebuilding our minor-league system and developing the kids that we had. You look at all these kids, they were in Double-A last year, they made the move to Triple-A and now they’re making an impact here.”

The 6-foot, 195-pound Fowler is primarily a centerfielder, starting 39 games there for Scranton this season. But he also started 14 games in rightfield and 12 in leftfield. “Should be pretty comfortable out there,” Fowler had said of the corner outfield spots.

Scouts who cover the Yankees have raved about Fowler, both offensively and defensively.

“Top-of-the-order speed,” said one opposing team scout who covers the Yankees’ minor-league system. “Brett Gardner-type player who can cover ground and has some pull. Ideal for Yankee Stadium.”

A sampling of a handful of opposing team talent evaluators resulted in comparisons to Steve Finley, Brady Anderson and Jacoby Ellsbury “at the same stage of Ellsbury’s development,” one said.

Said a third scout: “Quick stroke and plus speed on both sides of the ball. Somewhat surprising pop. Plus instincts and very high energy.’’

A fourth talent evaluator put it in even simpler terms.

“Just a natural ballplayer,” he said. “Good approach at the plate. Smooth actions. Game just seems to come easy to him.”

Fowler laughed about the mental gymnastics he went through Wednesday. He was pulled at the last moment before Scranton’s doubleheader but wasn’t told until about midnight that he would be going to the majors.

“I sat there both games, head going crazy,” said Fowler, a Georgia native whose parents couldn’t make it to Chicago but had been scheduled to attend Friday night’s game in Houston. “I think I had every thought you could possibly have in that situation. Didn’t really know what was happening. A lot of things can happen at this point of the year [including a trade]. You just never know. They finally told me and it was great.”

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