BALTIMORE — The way things have gone for Greg Bird this year, from the bum foot to the rough start, he was taking no chances. He wasn’t exactly Carlton Fisk with his body English, trying to bend the baseball to his will and away from foul territory. But he sure was leaning.
“Didn’t want it to take a right-hand turn at the end,” Bird said, laughing.
It was the top of the third inning, the Yankees already up 1-0, two outs, a 2-2 count, the bases loaded. In the perfect pinstriped blueprint for this season, there were a couple of guys they would have requested to be standing in the batter’s box, waiting for Dylan Bundy’s next offering. Bird was one of those guys.
Now, after a good swing, with the ball scraping the dusk, he was looking for a little luck, for a good break. And when the ball finally decided to crash into the right-field foul pole, he had his break, he had his first career grand slam, he instantly had his second four-RBI game in as many nights, and the Yankees were on their way to a 9-0 whitewash of the Orioles and a split of this four-game series.
“It’s huge for us,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said, “when he’s right.”
When Bird is right, a Yankees lineup that already gives pitchers night sweats becomes all the more intimidating, because now you have a lefty power stroke to fit right in with the right-handed behemoths that stuff the batting order. You have a guy with a natural Yankee Stadium swing in the middle of all of that, a guy who has already proven his October mettle.
“It makes us that much more dangerous,” Giancarlo Stanton said.
It was a good night all the way around for the Yankees (unless you count the daily Red Sox victory, but that has become as annoying and routine a part of this summer as ants at a picnic and gnats on your deck). Sonny Gray threw six shutout innings at the O’s, escaping trouble in the second and then cruising the rest of the way in.
In a season that’s been plump with prosperity, Gray has been one of the few flies in the crab dip, so this was a terrific development, Gray upping his record to 6-7 and lowering his ERA to 5.46. Baby steps, as they say.
But Bird’s big night was another one, and in some ways even more vital. For weeks Bird insisted — and his Yankees bosses confirmed — that things were looking better, even as he loitered south of the Mendoza Line, even as he seemed overmatched by good pitching. He started to drive the ball better, started collecting “hard” outs.
Not every young player has that kind of organizational confidence behind him, but then not every young player had the terrific 2015 debut that Bird had, or the eye-opening 2017 postseason that included a series-turning home run (against lefty killer Andrew Miller, of all people) in Game 3 of the ALDS with the Indians.
Still, the train ultimately moves along. With you or without you.
Bird had a breakthrough game Tuesday, drilling a three-run homer and adding a sacrifice fly in a 6-5 loss that ended when he couldn’t quite handle a hard-hit ground ball by Jonathan Schoop. It was ruled a hit, but probably should have been an error, and seemed just the kind of one-step-forward, one-step-back night that can add to a young player’s frustration.
But Bird has never lacked for confidence, not from the moment he showed up three years ago. He put together a long, competitive at-bat against Bundy in the first before fanning, then lasered the foul pole. That’s eight RBIs in two games, and that’s a scorching pace in any league.
“It’s little things,” Bird said. “It’s finding little positives in each day, believing that gradually it’s coming. You’ve got to be consistent and hit mistakes. I just play, and show up every day out. I put in the work and I play, and my teammates know that and that’s what’s mattered to me.”
Said Boone: “Him playing well is a big deal for us. Hopefully we’re seeing him get settled in for us.”
He was due a little luck. Maybe now, he’s due a little more than that.