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Sometimes birthday gifts come in soft packages; Jay Bruce will take it

Jay Bruce of the Yankees follows through on

Jay Bruce of the Yankees follows through on his sixth-inning two-run base hit against the TorontoBlue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Yankees had been waiting a game and a half for that One Big Hit when Jay Bruce walked to the plate in the sixth inning on Saturday. It was his 34th birthday.

Only seven days earlier, Bruce learned he had made the Opening Day roster when it was revealed that Luke Voit needed knee surgery.

Not only was Bruce not going to spend his birthday on the unemployment line, but he immediately became the team’s first baseman — a position that before this season he had played in 54 games, or about .03% of his major league appearances.

None of that was on Bruce’s mind when he stepped into the box at Yankee Stadium with the bases loaded, two outs and the Yankees holding a one-run lead.

Facing hard-throwing lefthander Tim Mayza, Bruce fought off an inside pitch and blooped a two-run single to shallow leftfield. It was his first hit of 2021 and gave the Yankees a three-run lead en route to their first victory of the season, a 5-3 decision over Toronto.

"I thought he battled," manager Aaron Boone said. "That’s a tough matchup there. Their lefty-lefty [specialist]. He’s able to throw one out there. Glad he was able to get that big one out of the way."

Said Bruce: "It wasn’t the prettiest or hardest hit of all time, but I’ll take every one I can get. It was timely and that’s even more important."

The runs were necessary breathing room. It also might have been the first moment this season when Bruce, Boone and Yankees fans got to exhale.

The Yankees were 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position in an excruciating 3-2, 10-inning Opening Day loss. Plate appearance after plate appearance, especially in the late innings, the Yankees and the 10,850 fans allowed in for Thursday’s opener were anticipating that One Big Hit. They didn’t get it. The Yankees struck out 13 times and left 10 men on base.

Bruce went 0-for-3 with a walk in the opener and struck out in his first two at-bats on Saturday.

On Saturday, the Yankees were 3-for-8 with RISP when Bruce came up in the sixth — three singles, two of them of the infield variety by DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks, both of which drove in runs.

Remember this the next time we rail about clutch hitting, or lack of clutch hitting. Other than Gary Sanchez’s line-drive solo home run in the fourth, four of the Yankees’ runs on Saturday were driven in by a bloop or a bleeder.

LeMahieu beat out a slow roller to third for an RBI single in the second. Hicks drove in a run with a grounder up the middle off second baseman Marcus Semien’s glove in the fourth. And then Bruce sent his dying quail in front of leftfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in the sixth.

(I’m sure I could find the exit velocity on all three. But how exactly would that enhance our knowledge or enjoyment of the game? Two grounders and a pop-up. You know what those look like.)

Bruce’s birthday workday was over when he was replaced by pinch runner Tyler Wade. Boone wanted better defense at first, which made sense even after Bruce made a pair of nifty plays earlier in the game, including a tough stretch to complete a double play in the first and a diving stop to rob Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of a potential leadoff double in what still was a one-run game in the sixth.

The Yankees don’t need Bruce to be Don Mattingly at first. All they want is for him to make the routine plays and pick up a few hits and RBIs until Voit returns, probably in May.

"I’m here to help," Bruce said. "I’m here to help the team win a World Series."

He might not even stay on the roster when Voit returns. And who knows where he’ll be on his 35th birthday? That’s a lot of candles for a baseball player. At least Bruce got to blow out 34 on Saturday with a smile on his face.

"I was telling some guys today, if you had told me when I was 18 years old that I’d be the first baseman for the New York Yankees when I was 34, I would have probably told you you were lying," Bruce said. "I’ve been able to essentially spend every birthday since I was 21 or 22 years old on a major league field. That’s special for me and I don’t take it for granted . . . It was a great birthday. Timely hit. Big win for us. Yeah, it’s good."

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