SAN FRANCISCO — It took one swing for Gary Sanchez to remind his detractors why the Yankees put up with his occasional issues behind the plate.
With the Yankees ahead by two runs in Saturday's game against the Giants, Sanchez — 0-for-9 with seven strikeouts to that point since being activated from the injured list Wednesday — batted with one out and the bases loaded in the fifth inning. He fell in a 1-and-2 hole against lefthander Derek Holland, and a third strikeout in as many at-bats appeared possible.
Instead, Sanchez turned on an inviting 91-mph fastball that came in belt-high and straight, rocketing it an estimated 467 feet to left-center for his first career grand slam.
“I was at third base,” J.A. Happ said, “and I just felt like he was maybe going to hit one foul through my chest at about 110 [mph]. But he ended up hitting it about 110 into the [enormous] glove out there [atop the left-centerfield bleachers]. That was incredible.”
That gave the Yankees a six-run cushion, and with Happ throwing the best he has all season, they withstood a tough ninth inning for Luis Cessa and posted a 6-4 victory in front of 33,971 at Oracle Park.
“When you get a chance to bring in four runs, it could be just 300 feet, I’ll take it,” Sanchez said with a smile.
He dropped the bat as the ball left the yard to make it 6-0 and emphatically clapped his hands together once — a gesture that seemed as much relief as celebration.
“The past couple of games, I’ve been off at the plate,” Sanchez said through his translator. “When you’re able to connect like that, you’re going to feel happy and you’re going to show some emotion.”
It gave him seven home runs, one behind Luke Voit for the team lead, and 15 RBIs in only 14 games. He just missed a second homer with a long flyout to dead center in the seventh inning.
“You always know he’s capable of something like that at any moment,” Aaron Boone said of the grand slam.
Cessa allowed a three-run homer by Yangervis Solarte and a solo shot by pinch hitter Erik Kratz in the ninth inning before Aroldis Chapman struck out Pablo Sandoval on three pitches to earn his fifth save.
The Yankees (16-11) improved to 5-1 on this nine-game road trip and won for the 10th time in 12 games. They totaled eight hits, three by third baseman Gio Urshela, who continues to shine in the field and at the plate in Miguel Andujar’s absence.
The Yankees sent nine to the plate in the fifth. Cameron Maybin and Thairo Estrada singled, but the Giants ran the wheel play on Happ's sacrifice bunt and got Maybin at third. After DJ LeMahieu walked to load the bases, Voit extended his MLB-best on-base streak to 38 games when Holland hit him in the right knee with a pitch, forcing in a run to make it 2-0. Then Sanchez put the game away with one swing.
Happ, who entered the game with an 0-2 record, a 5.96 ERA and seven home runs allowed in five starts, was terrific. He allowed five hits in seven scoreless innings and has a 2.31 ERA in his last three starts. Each has been solid to good, and each was accomplished with a different approach. On Saturday, his sinker and slider were effective, so he rode those pitches.
“I feel like I can I pitch, I think that’s the biggest thing,” said Happ, who struck out two and did not walk a batter. “I would say the last three times out, my strengths were different each time. Trying to adapt out there and trust that that’s enough.”
Holland was tagged for six runs and six hits in five innings in falling to 1-4 with a 5.34 ERA. He threw two scoreless innings before the Yankees got to him in the third. DJ LeMahieu, who entered the game at 9-for-21 with 11 RBIs with runners in scoring position this season, delivered a ground smash that deflected off third baseman Evan Longoria for an infield single and a 1-0 lead.
In the only inning the Giants (11-16) threatened against Happ, the defense, primarily LeMahieu and Voit, saved him.
With runners on first and second and two outs in the third, Brandon Belt ripped a shot that LeMahieu backhanded cleanly on the short hop before hitting the ground. From his knees, the three-time Gold Glove-winning second baseman threw accurately to first but short-hopped the throw, and Voit scooped it out of the dirt with a flourish for the third out.
“Today I think was a good example trying not to overthrow,” Happ said. “Didn’t feel like I had my live fastball today so was just trying to execute, and with the plays we were making, I was confident to get the ball on the ground.”