With every failure, Greg Bird couldn’t help but cling to the cliches, using the same well-worn sentences employed by every player — young or old — who has found himself flailing at the big-league level. Each new day brought the same questions. Bird mostly gave the same responses, with one central theme.
“I know I can hit,” he said.
No one ever doubted that. But transforming that oft-repeated mantra into boxscore results had been elusive for Bird, right up until the second inning Sunday night, when the Yankees’ slumbering first baseman displayed the combustible power generated by two weeks of frustration.
Moments after Aaron Judge was deprived of a home run by an overeager fan reaching his glove over the rightfield wall and knocking the ball onto the grass — the video review ruled interference, sticking him with an RBI triple — Bird put the next pitch halfway to the No. 4 train.
The crowd barely had finished booing the ruling on Judge’s hit when Adam Wainwright’s 90-mph sinker was met with a loud crack from Bird’s bat. True, the short rightfield porch at Yankee Stadium is tailor-made for his dangerous lefty swing, but this booming two-run shot, estimated at 429 feet, would have been a no-doubter in any ballpark.
All of the angst built up by Bird’s 0-for-20 slump appeared to be transferred to that swing, which delivered his first home run since Oct. 1, 2015. The relief was almost too much for words.
“How it’s supposed to feel,” Bird said, smiling. “Whatever you want to call it.”
He lined a double down the rightfield line in the fourth, walked in the sixth and singled in the eighth. Those four at-bats more than doubled his production in seven previous games and made all of the pregame questions posed to Joe Girardi about keeping him in the lineup seem foolish. The manager never wavered. “If I didn’t believe in him,” he said, “I wouldn’t put him out there.”
Then again, throwing in the towel on Bird after 11 games didn’t make much sense. Not after he won the first baseman’s job by batting .451 (23-for-51) with eight home runs and 15 RBIs during spring training. And not after Bird already had proved his mettle at this level by swatting 11 homers and driving in 31 runs in 46 games toward the end of the 2015 season.
What Bird did in Tampa last month seemed to erase any lingering doubts about the surgically repaired labrum in his right shoulder, the devastating injury that cost him the entire 2016 season. But Girardi cited that lost year as a possible cause for Bird’s trouble getting up to speed, if only because he had grown tired of making excuses in the past few days. There had been Bird’s bruised ankle, caused by his own foul ball, which combined with a stomach bug to sideline him for four consecutive games from April 8-12.
The timing was made even worse by the fact that Gary Sanchez was lost for a month with a strained muscle in his throwing arm and Judge was left to shoulder the load that the three 20-something Yankees were supposed to be sharing.
As Judge kept blasting tape-measure shots, going deep three times in as many games last week, the other topic of conversation swirled around what the heck could be wrong with Bird, who had plunged to .038 (1-for-26) with 13 strikeouts before his breakout performance.
“It helps him relax a little bit,” Girardi said afterward. “He can breathe a little bit. I found my swing and now I can go to work.”
As Girardi also emphasized, Bird’s opening skid was magnified because it’s April and we’re dealing with small sample sizes. The only penalty for Bird has been a steady drop in the batting order. There hasn’t been any real threat to his job security, either, because Chris Carter entered the game batting .182 (4-for-22) with zero homers and eight strikeouts.
That also made it preferable to just stay with the kid. On Sunday night, the Yankees sure were glad they did.