TAMPA, Fla. — It was a no-doubter, but Jorge Mateo wasn’t taking any chances.
Not after what happened Wednesday.
The Yankees’ top-rated prospect got hold of a 1-and-2 knuckleball from Steven Wright in the third inning Saturday and launched it nearly halfway up the 40-foot scoreboard in left-center at Steinbrenner Field.
Sprinting out of the box, Mateo lost his helmet rounding first before finally slowing and shooting his right arm skyward when the ball clanked off the scoreboard.
Why the full sprint after ball met bat?
“I thought I had a home run on Wednesday,” the righthanded- hitting shortstop said through his translator. “I learned to keep on running. Running fast.”
The 20-year-old, signed as an undrafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2012, typically doesn’t have that issue. He stole a combined 82 bases in the minors last season to lead all minor-leaguers. But in the Yankees’ exhibition opener on Wednesday against the Tigers, Mateo was a tad slow — though, in fairness, not all that slow — getting out of the box on a drive he launched to leftfield in the ninth inning that didn’t clear the wall. Mateo ended up with a triple anyway, but it was a lesson learned.
“They told me to run hard all the time,” he said of the message some of his older teammates imparted after that game. “I saw video of it and I learned from it.”
One of the veterans who spoke with Mateo was Carlos Beltran, who smiled approvingly as he walked by Mateo while he was speaking with reporters after Saturday’s game.
“Great talent,” Beltran said. “He looks comfortable. He’s kind of like [Luis] Severino but as a position player. He looks like he’s been here before. When you have confidence like that, it translates into success.”
Mateo hit .268 in 96 games last year with low Class A Charleston before finishing the season with Class A Tampa, where he hit .321 in 21 games. His legs stood out, of course, but he has other tools.
What comes to mind first when Mateo’s name is mentioned? “An elite athlete is No. 1,” Yankees vice president of player personnel Gary Denbo said. “He’s the type of player you look for when you’re scouting. He can run. He can throw. Everything he does is with quickness and great body control . . . He’s continuing his development as a hitter. The quick bat speed is there. He’s able to hit it to all fields and every ball he hits he seems to hit hard, with little effort.”
One opposing team scout, while steering clear of projecting too far ahead, called Mateo “obviously an excellent prospect.”
“Great speed, solid defensively and he’s got a chance to hit,” the scout said. “Tough not to like his energy and all-around game.”
It’s a game that the Yankees hope will continue to develop during this camp and then wherever Mateo starts the minor-league season, likely with Class A Tampa but perhaps higher.
“It’s been great because I’ve had the opportunity to learn from my teammates,” said Mateo, who has told people in the organization that he wants to pattern himself after Derek Jeter.
The learning isn’t always about baseball. Earlier in the day, Beltran pulled Mateo aside because he sensed the youngster, who won’t turn 21 until June 23, was lonely.
“We were talking about family,” Beltran said. “He has family in the Dominican Republic. I was telling him that I understand how difficult that would be, but just make sure you don’t lose focus on what’s going to take care of the family, and that’s your career. He’s a good kid. He listens. He’s very polite. Something I don’t see often . . . He’s humble, very humble.”