Glorious daydreams abound on opening day, when each team’s slate is clean and the season’s inevitable trials and tribulations haven’t yet piled up. But the images of winning a pennant and hoisting the World Series trophy are far more realistic for some — the 2019 Yankees included.
Their season of high expectations, at the tail end of a championship-less decade, began Thursday afternoon with a booming first chapter. With a formula they expect to ride often this year, the Yankees toppled the Baltimore Orioles, 7-2, behind power hitting and pitching.
Designated hitter Luke Voit provided the bulk of the power by smashing the team’s first home run of the season, a three-run shot in the first inning. He drove in another run when he was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the fifth, ultimately accounting for four runs with a blast and a bruise.
There was more offense to come after his homer, but Voit’s contributions proved more than enough against the rebuilding Orioles in front of a crowd of 46,928 at Yankee Stadium.
Masahiro Tanaka, starting because of a shoulder injury to the ace Luis Severino, earned his first opening-day victory in four tries as a Yankee. He allowed two runs, one earned, and struck out five batters over five and two-thirds innings, then stepped aside for the onslaught that is the Yankees’ new and improved bullpen.
“It was an ideal way to go about a game, as far as pitching goes,” Tanaka said.
There was little anxiety for the pitching staff thanks to the Yankees’ potent lineup. After setting a major league record with 267 home runs last season, the Yankees predicted they would top that this year.
ImageMasahiro Tanaka struck out five batters, earning the first opening day victory of his Yankees career.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times
With two home runs in their first game, they are on a pace to do so. First baseman Greg Bird also homered, to right-center field in the eighth inning. The blast helped cancel out a few boos for Bird, who had struck out in each of his first three at-bats.
But on Thursday, at least, it all started with Voit. About a year ago, he was with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Class AAA team in Memphis. The Yankees, needing a first baseman because of injuries and underperformance, saw Voit as an undervalued player and acquired him in a minor trade in July.
Given a chance to play, he proved crucial to the Yankees’ playoff push. He hit 14 home runs in 39 games and started all of the Yankees’ playoff games. He battled Bird for the first-base job this year, but both ended up on the opening-day roster thanks to a nagging back injury to center fielder Aaron Hicks.
And on Voit’s first major league opening day, the Yankees trusted him with the power spot of the lineup, fourth, behind his fellow sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. After Judge and Stanton singled off Orioles starter Andrew Cashner, Voit came up and saw a low slider on his fifth pitch. Listed at 6 feet 3 inches and 225 pounds, Voit and his powerful swing sent the ball over the center-field fence.
“To have that first opening day and hit a home run is pretty special,” Voit said, “and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
A couple of caveats should be noted with the victory: It was against the Orioles, who had the worst record in baseball last season. On the other hand, this Yankees squad is not yet whole.
Pitcher C. C. Sabathia is serving a five-game suspension stemming from an incident in which he threw at Jesus Sucre last fall and will have to spend addition time on the injured list, as he is still building up from off-season operations on his heart and a knee. He is expected to return sometime in April, which is when reliever Dellin Betances and Hicks are also supposed to be back. Severino is out until May. Shortstop Didi Gregorius is expected back from elbow surgery over the summer.
ImageOrioles centerfielder Cedric Mullins couldn’t get to Greg Bird’s solo home run in the eighth inning.CreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times
“It’s a long season,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said after Thursday’s win. “And I’d tell you that if I walked in here and we lost the game. So, sure, we want to get off to a good start and play our best baseball.”
He added: “But one game sometimes, either way, doesn’t necessarily bleed into anything. I look for individuals trying to get a few firsts out of the way so you can settle into the routine and grind of the season so it becomes more normal.”
With this core of players, the Yankees have shown tantalizing potential. They fell one game short of the World Series in 2017 but were bounced in a 2018 American League division series by the Boston Red Sox, their fierce rivals and the eventual champions.
Once the Yankees were sent packing last October, Judge said he couldn’t bring himself to the watch the rest of the postseason. His 2019 goals include winning the A.L. East, which the Yankees haven’t done since 2012, and advancing further in the playoffs.
“It’s always on your mind, especially starting a new season,” he said.
To reach that goal, the Yankees tried to build up their pitching staff. This winter, they traded prospects for James Paxton and spent $140 million either re-signing or adding starting pitchers J. A. Happ and Sabathia, and relief pitchers Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino.
“We won 100 games last year, and we’re even better than we were last year,” Stanton said.
Glimpses showed on Thursday. Ottavino, a newcomer who grew up a Yankees fan in Brooklyn, struck out three batters with his wicked arsenal over one and a third innings. He was followed by Britton, who worked around a walk and a hit for a scoreless eighth inning. Closer Aroldis Chapman had little issue in the ninth to close out the first of what the Yankees hope is many more wins.
“So many things factor into reaching a World Series,” said shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, another newcomer, who went 1 for 4. “It has to come together. You go through ups and down during the season, and it’s all about how you kind of ride that ship. This team has the talent but that’s only half the battle.”