Why strong Opening Day start was so important for Yankees' Gary Sanchez

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Anthony McCarron
·4 min read
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Gary Sanchez rounding third base home uniform
Gary Sanchez rounding third base home uniform

Two prime takeaways emerged from the Yankees’ desultory Opening Day loss to the Blue Jays Thursday. The Yanks better hope that the one involving Gary Sánchez is the storyline that keeps reverberating through their season, not the parade of ugly at-bats up and down their lineup.

Sánchez had a terrific afternoon, bashing a 407-foot homer in his first at-bat of the season, finished 2-for-3, and threw a laser to second to cut down the first runner attempting a steal against him this year. He walked leading off the ninth, helping create what turned out to be a wasted scoring chance, and even guided ace Gerrit Cole through a solid start that included eight strikeouts.

All the “it’s early” disclaimers apply, of course. But if anyone in pinstripes needed to get off to a good start, it’s the guy facing a critical year in what is, really, a young career. Sánchez’s 2020 season was pathetic (.147 average, career-worst 36% strikeout percentage, defensive issues) and there were plenty of Yankee fans who hoped the team would move on from the powerful, but puzzling, catcher.

So good for Sánchez, at least for one day. Maybe he’s even laying enough groundwork to be assigned to catch Cole in the postseason.

As for the rest of the lineup on Thursday -- Yikes. Entering this season, no one on the planet fretted over the Yanks’ ability to score runs. No one sane, anyway. But beyond Sánchez’s two-run homer, they couldn’t plate anything in the 3-2 loss, despite late chances.

The Yankees had only six hits. They were 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and left 10 men on base. The 1-6 spots in the lineup, presumably the most frightening part of a powerful offense, was 2-for-26 with 12 strikeouts.

As a result, the Yankees heard some boos from their fans for the first time since 2019, what with fans back in the ballpark after a season away because of the pandemic.

The Yanks, who held a 2-1 lead going into the sixth inning, had the bases loaded with one out in the seventh and Aaron Judge at the plate. But he bounced into a rally-crushing, 5-4-3 double play.

After Sánchez started the ninth with a walk, Mike Tauchman pinch-ran and stole second. One out later, he stole third. But he got thrown out at the plate trying to score when D.J. LeMahieu rolled over and hit a weak grounder to third. Judge whiffed with a runner on second to end the inning.

In the 10th, with the automatic runner starting on second, Aaron Hicks, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres all struck out. Stanton was booed for the second time in the game.

Other stuff happened, too -- the bullpen was pretty sharp, Torres was less-than-smooth at times at shortstop. But hitting stood out. Or, rather, didn’t.

The Yankees sputtered some on offense in spring training, so that perhaps magnifies a meek Opening Day performance by the lineup, though no one really cares about camp results now.

Still, it was fair for Aaron Boone to be asked if he’s got any concerns about the Yanks’ attack.

“No,” the Yankees manager said. “We’ll be fine. We had our chances. We were a hit or two away.”

Fair enough. But if you’ve complained about the Yankee offense in recent postseasons, Thursday might stick with you longer than it does with the manager. That’s fair. Depending on how October goes, you might think back to Opening Day, too.

Will their offense be better? No doubt. And just imagine how good it can be if Sánchez’s start was the beginning of a real bounceback season.

Because here’s an example of the kind of power we’re talking about with the Kraken: Thursday’s homer, his first on an Opening Day, was the 116th of his career and it came in his 422nd career game. That’s the third-most homers in MLB history in a player’s first 422 games. Only Ryan Howard (132) and Judge (119) had more.

Boone seemed delighted by Sánchez’s work overall Thursday, saying in part, “Did a really good job behind the plate, blocked a few balls. Good job with Gerrit, had a caught stealing. At the plate, he was excellent.

“All of his at-bats, he was on time and, obviously, dangerous.”

If that continues, all could be right in Yankeeland. As long as the rest of the bats catch up, anyway.