From the time he reported for spring training in early February, Gary Sanchez never ran from his nightmare 2018. It was, he said more than once, “a bad year” — but one, he said just as many times, that with good health he would put behind him.
It’s safe to say he has done so.
Sanchez hit his 18th home run, a tiebreaking two-run shot in the fifth inning Saturday night, to match his total from last season as the Yankees beat the Red Sox, 5-3, in front of a sellout crowd of 46,307 at the Stadium.
“Release the Kraken, man,” Luke Voit said, using the nickname bestowed upon Sanchez by general manager Brian Cashman years ago.
The AL East-leading Yankees (38-19), who are 32-10 since their 6-9 start, moved 2 1⁄2 games ahead of the Rays and 9 1⁄2 games clear of the Red Sox (29-29), who have yet to beat the Yankees this season (0-4).
By winning these first two games, the Yankees are in line to win a ninth straight series (though technically this one won’t be officially complete until Aug. 3, when Thursday’s game, which was rained out, is made up as part of a split doubleheader).
“We’ve played really well, there’s no question,” Aaron Boone said. “And we’ve done it a lot of different ways.”
With the score tied at 3-3, Sanchez stepped in against Rick Porcello with Voit on base and two outs in the fifth and slammed a 2-and-2 slider to right-center to make it 5-3. The pitch strayed from the strike zone at the last moment, but he stayed with it and powered it into the Yankees’ bullpen.
“It was like a one-handed shot,” said Voit (three hits). “I don’t know how he did it.”
Sanchez smiled. “When I started swinging, it was in the strike zone, then it kept on going out,” he said through his translator. “That’s how baseball is. Sometimes you’re going to swing at pitches that are not going to be in the zone and you’re still going to be able to connect.”
Except, Brett Gardner said, “Not many guys are capable of doing that. But Gary, he’s one of the most talented hitters in the league and he continues to find ways to impress us.”
Sanchez has 18 homers in 148 at-bats in 39 games after hitting 18 homers in 89 games last season, a year in which he was sidelined two separate times because of a right groin strain and a bum left shoulder that would require offseason surgery. Sanchez, an All-Star in 2017, produced a .186/.291/.406 slash line in 2018 and, for a second straight year, led the majors in passed balls with 18.
Suffice to say, little has been said about his defense this season. In fact, he hasn’t faced much criticism at all.
“Feels good to match that,” Sanchez said of the 18 homers. “But you have to keep the focus. There’s a lot more games coming and we’ve got to keep at it.”
After Sanchez’s homer, a bullpen that has been most impenetrable of late did it again. Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, Jonathan Holder, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman brought the victory home, allowing no runs, five hits and two walks in 5 1⁄3 innings.
Ottavino recorded perhaps the biggest out, striking out J.D. Martinez with an unhittable slider with two on and two outs to end the sixth. Chapman walked Mookie Betts and allowed a single by Andrew Benintendi to start the ninth, but Martinez hit into a 6-4-3 double play and Rafael Devers grounded out to end it. Chapman has converted 14 straight save chances and 16 of 17 overall.
Domingo German 9-1 with a 3.43 ERA coming in, was better than his previous start in Kansas City when he allowed four homers, but he didn’t give much distance, allowing three runs and six hits in 3 2⁄3 innings. He did strike out eight.
“Tonight was a battle,” Boone said. “It was a heavyweight fight out there. Both sides were just really difficult to go through. Every out was hard-earned.”