He was in a fix. Jay Bruce has been around the block a time or three, and has had more than his share of good moments against left-handed pitchers through the years, but you could see how uncomfortable it had to be for him as the shadows started to grow long at Yankee Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Tim Mayza had been summoned from the Blue Jays’ bullpen just to face him. The bases were full of Yankees courtesy of three walks by Toronto right-hander Rafael Dolis. The Yankees led, 3-2, but with the back end of the bullpen in flux, that didn’t exactly feel like a safe cushion. And, you know, they were already 0-1 on the season.
Mayza was exactly what you’d expect from a lefty trotting in from the bullpen. And Bruce knew it wouldn’t be the most enjoyable at-bat he’d ever had.
“I know he has really good stuff,” Bruce said later. “Lately there are a lot more lefties throwing sinkers and he also has a hard slider. I was hoping to see something up a little, and not walk off the plate with the slider.”
Mayza started off with four straight sinkers, and they were all nasty: 93 at the knees, inside corner; 95 at the letters, just off the plate; 94 down the pipe, which Bruce fouled off; 96, straight, but an inch or two high. It was 2-and-2.
Bruce: “You’re looking for one you can do something with.”
We should mention here: it was also Bruce’s birthday. He turned 34. A week ago, it wasn’t a sure thing he would even be on the Yankees; it took an injury to Luke Voit to make that happen. But, then, as Bruce waited on the 2-2 pitch, he could smile at a lot of things that had brought him to this moment.
“I was telling guys today, if someone told me when I was 18 years old that I’d be the first baseman of the New York Yankees when I turned 34, I would never have believed you,” he said.
He laughed, but he wasn’t whimsical.
“Believe me,” he said, “I don’t take any of this for granted.”
Including his three hitless at-bats to start the game — two strikeouts and a grounder to third — Bruce hadn’t exactly made a habit of lighting things up on his birthday. As he stood peering at Mayza with the sacks juiced and the count even, he was just 5-for-21 on his birthday in his career, three RBIs total.
Not a deep history of celebration.
And what followed wasn’t exactly one for the textbooks.
“It wasn’t the prettiest swing or the hardest hit ball of all time,” Bruce said. “But it was timely.”
It dunked off his bat and plunked between the third baseman, shortstop, left fielder and center fielder, a no-man’s-land seeing-eye special that scored two runs — and as it turned out, they were the decisive two runs in what became a 5-3 Yankees victory. Bruce clapped his hands, took a deep breath, then saw Tyler Wade coming to run for him.
Not a bad day’s work.
Not a bad birthday’s work.
“That’s a tough matchup, a lefty-lefty special,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of the single, Bruce’s first as a Yankee, the 1,452nd of a 15-year career that’s seen him as a star and a franchise face in Cincinnati, a deadline-trade bust (and later free-agent centerpiece) for the Mets, a pennant-push special for the Indians, a throw-in with the Mariners and an afterthought with the Phillies.
Whatever the rest of the season brings, he has this to build upon. He even made a terrific play at first base on a soft foul-line hugging ground ball off the bat of Vlad Guerrero Jr. that seemed ticketed for a double when the Blue Jay led off the top of the sixth. But Bruce snagged it on the short-hop, ran to the base and looked pretty smooth for a guy making only his 56th appearance as a big league first baseman (in his 1,511th game).
And that was just a prelude for the bottom of the inning.
“I’m just here to help,” he said later, all smiles, a pretty good day already, with some candles on a cake still to extinguish. “I’m here to win a World Series and we definitely have the team to do that.”
And why not? If you aren’t allowed a wish like that on your birthday, when are you?