This was another Subway Series at Yankee Stadium, and it was less than two years ago, although sometimes it feels much, much further in the distance than that.
The Yankees had just completed their midsummer purge, had sent Andrew Miller to Cleveland and Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs, sending the back end of their bullpen, it turned out, to either side of that October’s World Series. They were about to embark on the exhausting, weeklong Alex Rodriguez Farewell Tour.
They were the rebuilding team in the city at that moment, bound for an empty October, while the Mets were the ones adding parts and pieces and trying to figure out a road to the playoffs. Yankee Stadium was quieter than normal, mostly because it was completely new territory, staring at oblivion in early August.
Then a funny thing happened.
First, Gary Sanchez walked into the home clubhouse. He’d been up for one game in May, and for his trouble, he was given four at-bats against Chris Sale, then of the White Sox, he’d gone 0-for-4 with a strikeout, and the next day he was back in Scranton. He was expected to stick around longer this time.
“I’m hoping this time I’ll get more playing time,” Sanchez said, quietly, through an interpreter. “I’m coming in with the attitude that I’ll be ready no matter what. If I’m in the lineup, I’m going to do my best. If not, I’ll stay ready in case they need me late in the game.”
“I’m hoping this will be the chance to prove that I’m ready to play in the big leagues,” he said
He started quietly: two singles and a double in eight at-bats as the Yankees and Mets split that portion of the Subway Series. Five games later, he’d still only scratched out five hits in 24 big league at-bats. He found a couple of holes against Boston’s Drew Pomeranz, the latter of which sparked a five-run seventh-inning rally.
Then, leading off the eighth against Junichi Tazawa, he clobbered a ball high and far over the Green Monster, the signature of a four-hit night and the launching pad for an opening big league act that left most of the sport speechless. By Aug. 28, he’d spend three straight days north of .400. He hit the ball hard, seemingly, with every swing. By Sept. 22, he hit the 18th and 19th of his 20 homers (in 201 at-bats) and his OPS was 1.157.
“He puts a good swing on almost every ball he sees,” Joe Girardi marveled in the middle of that scorching-hot stretch. “It’s fun to watch.”
Almost two years later, in time for another Subway Series, baseball in New York has once again been shaken upside-down. The Yankees are back in their customary spot, the Mets are in last place, the Yankees’ lineup is stuffed with guys who put good swings on just about every ball they see.
And now Sanchez is set to rejoin the lineup after spending a few weeks on the disabled list, nursing a groin injury, and it is positively staggering to think what this lineup might look like if he regains even a portion of the swagger he carried across those final two months of 2016.
For Sanchez has been physically absent from the Yankees all July, but even before that, across three difficult months, it felt like he was there but not there. He still contributed a number of timely hits, still hit 14 homers and 41 RBIs in only 63 games, but he endured long droughts at the plate, his average frozen these last few weeks at an unsightly .190, his OPS some 300 points south of where it was as a rookie.
Baseball can be a mystifying game, and in the same way the Yankees bosses were determined to stand beside Greg Bird while he struggled off the DL, they have been equally fervent in believing Sanchez would find his way. And as worthy as Austin Romine and Kyle Higashioka have been as backups … well, if Sanchez is even 80 percent of what he was in 2016, that makes him one more All-Star-caliber bat to have in that order.
And allows them to wonder just how spectacular the next two (and maybe three) months can really be.