NEW YORK — Rookie first baseman Tyler Austin is a representation of the “Is this really happening?” feeling around the New York Yankees right now. The magic that has them a mere two games back of the wild card and four in the division with 23 games remaining has similarities to Austin’s incredible, counted-out 2016 tale.
On Thursday, Austin launched the game winner in the ninth — his third home run, each and every one a significant shot.
As he rounded third on Thursday, the Yankees made a mosh pit around him. Didi Gregorius threw water on Austin, while Brett Gardner tossed some Gatorade his way. The whole scene was entirely unimaginable when spring training began in February.
The sweet taste of the Yankees’ fifth straight win, a 5-4 victory over the last-place Tampa Bay Rays, put the Yankees a season-high nine games over .500 and in an improbable spot.
“We have a shot,” manager Joe Girardi said a few minutes after Austin took his bath at home plate. “In this game, that is what you look forward to.”
Six weeks ago the Yankees were sellers, but now they are contenders led by the Baby Bombers. Gary Sanchez was the best player in baseball in August, and though he has an incredible story, his is not the only one.
Austin’s 2016 tale is so good, he said he wouldn’t believe it coming out of spring training.
Once a big-time prospect, Austin had fallen so far with a .240 season in 2015 that he began the year in Double-A. He really was off the radar until he started crushing the ball again in Trenton and then at Triple-A Scranton.
Now, he is starting many nights over Mark Teixeira. He is showing a habit for the dramatic.
In his first game, he and Aaron Judge were the first rookies ever to begin their careers with back-to-back homers. On Tuesday, his eighth-inning homer came on his 25th birthday and gave the Yankees the lead in a win over Toronto. On Thursday, he wasn’t even sure he was going to get the chance.
With righty Erasmo Ramirez on the mound, Girardi could have turned to Teixeira to pinch hit. Instead, liking the way that Austin is swinging and knowing that righties have fared better than lefties against Ramirez, Girardi stuck with the rookie.
Austin came through. He ran around the bases, looking confident, but not going crazy. It looked like he belonged.
“It is a sign that the moment right now is not too big,” Girardi said.
Austin has dealt with a lot in his young life. He had testicular cancer as a 17-year-old. He was lucky doctors found it early to prevent it from spreading. His health was fine enough that by the time he was graduating high school in Georgia, the Yankees scooped him up in the 13th round in 2010.
As a prospect, he looked like he was on the fast track to the majors in 2012 when he hit .322 in four levels of the minors, including high-A ball. But then he faded and really wasn’t mentioned as a future Yankee until he started dominating at Double-A and Triple-A, with a .916 OPS this season. Now he has been starting on many nights for a team contending for a wild card and the division.
Even he admits that if someone had told him in spring training this would happen this season, he would’ve doubted it.
“Honestly, I probably wouldn’t believe you,” Austin said.
The same can be said for this entire Yankee team. At the trade deadline, if someone said that after dealing Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova that the Yankees would be in a playoff race by the time football started, not many would’ve thought it was possible.
But here the Baby Bombers are — yes, indeed, they have a shot.