ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.-- By all accounts, Gary Sanchez is physically sound. His howitzer-strength right arm fully functional, the fence-busting swing intact. The Yankees insist that his nagging leg issues are behind him, and their faith in the 25-year-old catcher remains unshakeable.
But in watching Sanchez lately, something was definitely off with the former All-Star. And if those other boxes already had been checked, then there was only place left to look -- under his helmet, between his ears.
Before we could play amateur psychologist, however, Sanchez tried to dent the narrative involving his September swoon Tuesday on consecutive trips to the plate, the first a three-run homer and the second an RBI-single, both off Rays lefty reliever Jalen Beeks. How badly did Sanchez need a night like this? He was in a 1-for-27 plunge (13 Ks) before that home run, and the last time Sanchez had more than two RBIs in one game was June 15. It’s also worth mentioning that he had yet to allow a passed ball through seven nnings.
So does this mean that the Sanchez crisis is averted? Well, let’s not go too crazy. It is just one game. But momentum can be a funny thing, and the Yankees would love for this to be nudge in the right direction, to maybe get him rolling toward the Oct. 3 wild-card playoff.
This also should help turn down the volume on the crowd howling for Austin Romine to be behind the plate that night, as Sanchez (finally) showed why the Yankees’ decision-makers have been supporting him so vigorously in the public arena.
After essentially dumping Greg Bird and Brett Gardner for the sake of their playoff pursuit, the team’s clingy behavior with Sanchez persisted as he let fairly routine pitches clang off his glove and his futility at the plate continued. Until those Tuesday at-bats, it was only natural to ask if his poor performance was stirring some insecurity inside Sanchez, and perhaps that mental minefield was sabotaging him more than any muscle strain ever could.
“I think confidence is powerful in this game,” Aaron Boone said Tuesday afternoon. “Any time you struggle, that’s something that you’ve got to be able to battle through. You play this game long enough, this game will get you. It will humble you.”
Consider Sanchez sufficiently humbled. Entering Tuesday, he was in a 10-for-66 (.152) slide, with 24 strikeouts since coming off the disabled list on Sept. 1. And as his offense vanished, Sanchez’s deficiencies behind the plate -- always a concern -- had been magnified. Sanchez had two more passed balls Monday, but the Yankees still prevailed, 4-1, over the Rays. That brought his total to 17 on the season in only 72 games, four more than the next on the list.
The Yankees had been winning in spite of Sanchez, not because of him, and it was getting harder to buy into the team’s repeated efforts to prop him up as their starting catcher. Brian Cashman talked last Friday about “doubling and tripling down” on Sanchez in endorsing him for next week’s wild-card game, and Boone’s approach, as we’re familiar with by now, is unflinchingly positive.
For his part, Sanchez wasn’t available before Tuesday’s game, but he was seen hustling between meetings before batting practice. Whatever he’s gone through, Sanchez has never ducked the media, so Boone referencing all of his pregame work appears legit. And this doesn’t appear to be due to a lack of effort. More like a downward spiral that’s been difficult to pull out of.
“I think he’s pressed is a big reason why,” Boone said. “I feel like he has gone out there and chased results a little bit. Then all of a sudden you look up and you’re not having the season you’re expected to, now you’re start tinkering with something. And it can snowball on you.”
As far as the regular season goes, 2018 is a lost cause for Sanchez. It’s one he’d like to leave out of the briefcase (.180 BA, .666 OPS) for the arbitration hearings two years from now. But that’s what two extended DL stints can do to a player, even one of Sanchez’s caliber, when most of your time is spent either trying to get healthy or restoring your reputation once you actually do return to the field.
All Sanchez can do now is look forward, as the Yankees hope their faith ultimately will be rewarded.