When he was hitting .100 at the start of May, and then had to read in July that an unnamed Yankee source was questioning his desire to play baseball, as ridiculous as that sounded even then, Greg Bird couldn’t help but wonder exactly how the sky had fallen on him.
One minute he was crushing everything in sight during spring training, and the next he could barely put the ball in play.
It had to be his foot, right? Every time Bird took his stride and swung the bat, it felt like a bone was moving, he says now. Yet the doctors kept telling him they couldn’t find a reason for the pain.
Was it in his head? Was he losing his mind?
“There was a point where I’m thinking, ‘am I crazy?’ “ Bird admitted on Saturday, after his first game in the big leagues since May 1.
“But that’s where you really have to be able to really trust yourself. There’s a lot of outside noise, especially here, so you just have to trust yourself.
“That’s the advice I’ve gotten from older guys. So now I’m just glad I feel great and I’m ready to move on.”
Yes, Bird is back, and perhaps just in time for the Yankees, who continue to sputter offensively — especially Aaron Judge.
Six weeks after surgery to remove the os trigonum bone in his right foot/ankle, which a doctor finally diagnosed as the cause of his pain, Bird played a significant role in the Yankees’ 6-3 win over the Mariners, and looked a lot more like the player who starred as a late-season replacement for the injured Mark Teixeira in 2015.
It’s not just that Bird’s line-drive single started a two-out rally that led to Jacoby Ellsbury hitting a three-run home run in the fourth inning, giving the Yankees a 4-1 lead.
It was also the two walks he took, in addition to a hard ground-out to first base, that offered reason to believe Bird can still be a force this season, as the Yankees were counting on coming out of spring training.
“His at-bats were really good,’’ Joe Girardi said. “I think he can have a big impact.”
Bird had convinced the Yankees that he was back to form by pounding the ball the last couple of weeks in the minors, but they felt his patience in taking the walks so soon against major-league pitching was an equally good sign.
In fact, Bird’s combination of plate discipline and power is why Brian Cashman called him “the best hitter in the organization’’ more than once as he was coming up in the minors.
And recently Cashman made it clear he wasn’t thrilled to read an anonymous quote from a “Yankee insider” in my colleague Bill Madden’s column, questioning why Bird “wouldn’t want to be a part of” the surprise season this team was enjoying.
“I can’t comment on that,’’ Cashman said. “All I can tell you is Greg Bird is a high-character person and a tremendous talent, and I never doubted that it was a physical issue with him early in the season. It was just a matter of the doctors finding the cause and fixing it.”
Bird had a right to be offended by the quote, but on Saturday he made it clear he just wants to move on, happy to feel healthy again.
“It is what it is,’’ he said. “I’m just glad to be playing. Whatever people say, that’s what they say. I just knew something wasn’t right. It always felt like a bone was moving around in my foot. It was weird, really weird.
“But as soon as I could walk on it after the surgery, I knew it was ok again. I practiced swinging without a bat, and I could tell.
“I’ve always been in tune with how I feel, especially hitting. Hitting’s always come more natural, but it’s a feel game, in my opinion, and when you know how you’re feeling, you can make adjustments. Sometimes you just have to deal with things.”
It’s certainly fair to wonder if Bird can stay healthy, after missing all of last season due to shoulder surgery, and dealing with the foot issue this season. But he has proven he can hit big-league pitching, and his lefthanded power is something the Yankees have been lacking this season.
Bird hit sixth on Saturday, but it may not be long before he moves up in the lineup, especially as Judge continues to struggle. The big guy went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts on Saturday, 0-for-9 in his last two games, dropping his average to .280, the lowest it has been since April 23rd.
And though Girardi had Judge in the No. 2 spot on Saturday, and has been reluctant to drop him in the lineup, the return of Bird, as well as Starlin Castro, gives him more appealing options near the top.
For weeks it has felt like Judge would have to get hot again for the Yankees to make a real run at the Red Sox. Maybe Bird’s long-awaited return will be the spark instead.
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