HOUSTON — Bade Ruth. Darth Bader.
Even John Sterling stylized, “Wild About Harry,” which the Yankees’ broadcaster is happily getting to use plenty this October.
All these clever headlines, and home-run calls, and then you talk to Harrison Bader, whose uber-focused, baseball-first personality doesn’t really make him the tabloid type.
His sensational performance so far this month, however, is another story. And with the Yankees still feeling around for a suitable leadoff hitter during these playoffs, who better than an improbable slugger who’s doing a fairly decent Aaron Judge impression if you prefer the 62-homer guy in the No. 2 spot?
That was manager Aaron Boone’s thinking for Thursday night’s Game 2 of the ALCS, when he pencilled in Bader atop the order against Astros lefthander Framber Valdez on the mound. Boone didn’t get the immediate pop he was hoping for — Bader grounded to third base on the third pitch of the game — but that was an outlier from this month’s barrage. Through the Yankees’ first six postseason games, Bader has four homers, making him the first in franchise history to accomplish the feat.
Not even Babe Ruth had that prolific of an October run. Kind of a stunning stat when you consider Bader never cleared the fence once in 10 playoff games for the Cardinals. The four homers already tie him for fifth most by a Yankee in a single postseason. Giancarlo Stanton, Alex Rodriguez and Bernie Williams each have six. Reggie Jackson is next with five.
Then Bader. Hard to believe, especially for a guy who showed up in the Bronx wearing an orthopedic boot on his right leg at the trade deadline. Back then, Bader was a punchline, the damaged centerfielder general manager Brian Cashman acquired for a functional lefthanded starter (and clubhouse favorite) in Jordan Montgomery.
Even Bader, to deadpan effect, had to admit the poor optics of this defensive wiz unpacking with a knee-length boot strapped to his leg. And, oh yeah, he wasn’t going to be ready to actually play for another six weeks or so.
Nobody’s questioning Bader anymore, or for that matter Cashman, who apparently pulled off a trade for one of —the most dangerous sluggers in Yankees’ postseason history. All Bader did Wednesday in the Yankees’ series-opening loss to the Astros was take Hall of Famer Justin Verlander off the train bridge in leftfield (411 feet!) in the second inning. That’s Judge and Stanton territory, but Bader proved he could flex with the big boys by turning on an 87-mph breaking pitch, delivering a shocking blow that momentarily silenced the crowd at Minute Maid Park.
It was an awesome shot, and what Bader is doing is nothing short of spectacular. Just don’t call this October reign of terror a hot streak. Bader’s even-keel, almost-meditative mindset doesn’t deal in those concepts.
“I don’t really view it as a hot streak,” Bader said late Wednesday night. “Just had a bunch of at-bats toward the end of the regular season, kind of working through some stuff and found my groove, found some rhythm, and every at-bat’s a clean slate.
“So I don’t really view it as a linear thing. It’s more just like every single time you go to the plate it’s just a new opportunity. Try to keep it fresh especially with the amount of emotion that’s going on between pitches. I’ve just tried to stay focused every single pitch.”
Let’s just say then that Bader is getting some consistently explosive results, as four of his five hits in this postseason have left the yard. And he’s certainly got the attention of Boone, who in searching for ways to squeeze offense from this lineup could do worse than get him as many at-bats as possible going forward. Basically using the previous Judge strategy for Bader. Show of hands who thought that was coming this October?
“I heard him say that, about not being a hot streak, just each new at-bat is a new opportunity and really lock in and try and win pitches and focus on the next pitch,” Boone said Thursday before Game 2. “We talk about it all the time in the playoffs — the next play, the next pitch is the most important. And he's done a good job of compartmentalizing and not letting something that just happen — good, bad, or indifferent — affect the next thing. He's had a really good focus on that point.”
Perhaps the problem with Cashman’s deadline is he didn’t trade for enough Bader-types. With DJ LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi still functional back in August, the Yankees didn’t deal for Bader thinking future leadoff hitter. He’d only made 11 career starts in that spot before Thursday — as compared to a total of 343 total in the bottom third of the order, where the Yankees had him anchored during these playoffs.
And the way Bader is crushing the ball right now, this overnight switch can’t be categorized as an act of desperation. More like a no-brainer swap, with the potential for some powerful upside.