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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees’ Michael Pineda, depleted Baby Bombers play to Bronx raves

New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda reacts in

New York Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda reacts in the eighth inning of the team's home opener against the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee stadium on Monday, April 10, 2017. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The Yankees, after 27 world championships, are trying to peddle a different product in the Bronx this season. Consider this year an investment in the future, they ask, while paying a premium for the franchise’s continued renovation.

That being the case, Monday’s home opener, a thoroughly entertaining 8-1 beatdown of the Rays, was an impressive sales pitch before a sellout crowd (46,955) apparently fine with A-Rod watching from a balcony suite rather than in pinstripes on the field.

Forget that Hal Steinbrenner still is paying Rodriguez $21 million this year to island-hop with J-Lo. Sunk costs, and all that. The Yankees want you to focus instead on the Baby Bombers, pause to take selfies among the new centerfield patio spaces and happily munch on the brontosaurus rib from Mighty Quinn’s BBQ.

Frankly, that has the makings of a pretty decent afternoon when it turns out the way Monday’s opener did, and Michael Pineda, the rotation’s Rubik’s Cube, even provided the unexpected thrill of chasing perfection two outs deep into the seventh inning.

“Today was awesome,” Brett Gardner said. “And Big Mike had a lot to do with that.”

Pineda did steal the show, reminding us all what he’s capable of at the peak of his powers by striking out 11 without issuing a walk. His signature slider dropped as if it were rolling off a table, and the sharper changeup made Pineda even more dangerous.

Through the first six innings, the Rays flailed away, at best nicking him with weak contact. During that stretch, Pineda needed only 74 pitches, keeping him right on pace to go the distance, if history was indeed on the line.

“You’re thinking it’s going to be another special day here at the Stadium,” Joe Girardi said. “I thought he had a shot.”

The dream ended when Pineda hung a slider to Evan Longoria, who hammered the pitch into left for a double.

Pineda may have failed to complete the perfecto, but he still got a roaring standing ovation during his walk to the dugout, and the small hiccup certainly didn’t detract from what the Yankees were able to deliver otherwise.

The Yankees began a nearly perfect day by providing a dollop of nostalgia, drafting Joe Torre, Tino Martinez and Willie Randolph — all a part of Team USA’s winning WBC squad — to throw the ceremonial first pitches. And when Pineda tossed one for real, the Bronx temperature was 76 degrees, the warmest for a Yankees home opener since 1960, when it was 78. Last year, the temperature was a frosty 36.

With gorgeous spring weather that allowed fans to wear their short-sleeved Jeter jerseys, the Yankees couldn’t have drafted a better script for what could be described as one of their more important home openers in recent memory. If Hal truly is willing to forge ahead with the kids as he curtails spending, then he needs them to justify the price of admission.

As if on cue, Aaron Judge drilled a two-out homer deep into the leftfield bleachers in the fourth inning. That’s what these fans desperately want to see, and Judge took on a greater significance with Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird sidelined by ailments. Bird is expected back tomorrow from a stomach bug, but the postgame news wasn’t great for Sanchez, who will be out for a month with a Grade 1 strain of the right brachialis muscle (the one behind the biceps, evidently).

So far, Judge looks sturdy enough to lean on, but a few experienced Yankees were there to lend a hand.

With Sanchez on the shelf, Girardi reverted to using Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury atop the lineup. Gardner had a pair of steals and scored twice, coming home on Ellsbury’s one-out double in the third inning for the first run of the game. Matt Holliday, donning pinstripes for the first time in the Bronx, showed his bat might be worth the one-year, $13-million DH pact by ripping two hits, including an RBI double during the Yankees’ five-run eighth.

The only downside? By blowing open the game, the Yankees didn’t get to unleash Aroldis Chapman, fresh off his $86-million deal, for the home fans. Chapman was prepping to come in but sat down in favor of Chasen Shreve.

The 100-mph fastballs had to wait. But for one day, the show was worth it.

“Yankee fans are hungry,” Judge said. “And I think they’re buying into this team.”

Maybe. Let’s see what happens over the next 80.

New York Sports