Soto authors 'Yankee classic' with game-saving OF assist

Bombers back new slugger's heroics with largest Opening Day comeback since 1950

March 29th, 2024

HOUSTON -- Great players often do great things, so it was no surprise to see emphatically stamp his first Opening Day as a member of the Yankees. That the moment would be powered by his arm, not the game’s most potent left-handed stroke, was a twist even his teammates couldn’t have seen coming.

Soto charged Kyle Tucker’s ninth-inning single to right field and delivered a strong one-hop throw to home plate, cutting down Mauricio Dubón's attempt to score the potential tying run as the Yankees held on for a season-opening 5-4 victory over the Astros on Thursday afternoon at Minute Maid Park.

“I worked all Spring Training long on my arm and the throws from right field,” Soto said. “It’s just a great feeling. It just tells you I'm going in the right way with what I've been doing, and I'm more than excited to keep doing it.”

Soto’s toss bounced to catcher Jose Trevino, who was positioned up the third-base line in fair territory, then dove back to intercept the sliding Dubón. As the Astros challenged, asking umpires to check the tag and for interference, Soto watched a scoreboard replay and told teammate Aaron Judge they had nothing to worry about.

“In that situation, you’ve got to come up throwing. You’ve got to save the game,” Judge said. “The most important thing is getting the ball. A lot of people skip that step and it’s where it causes a lot of issues. He was nice and easy. You get the ball and then trust it, let it rip. We do a thousand throws throughout the offseason and Spring Training. It’s really muscle memory.”

“You ask any catcher, it’s a tough play,” Trevino said. “I thought [Soto] had a good jump on it, came in and put a good throw in a nice area where I could catch it and put the tag on him.”

The defensive sparkler came four innings after Soto collected his first hit and RBI with his new club. Soto’s bases-loaded RBI single off Houston starter Framber Valdez in the fifth sparked a three-run rally, which also featured a run-scoring hit-by-pitch of Anthony Rizzo and Anthony Volpe’s bases-loaded walk.

Oswaldo Cabrera hit a game-tying homer off Rafael Montero in the sixth inning, and Alex Verdugo lifted a go-ahead sacrifice fly against Ryan Pressly in the seventh.

“We didn’t really get that big hit today, but you felt the bats,” manager Aaron Boone said. “Those were heavy, laden at-bats. It wore Framber down, made him work really hard, got him out of there. We were able to put enough on the board.”

Verdugo also made a nice catch to rob Tucker of an extra-base hit in the seventh, helping lead the Yankees to their largest come-from-behind Opening Day victory since overcoming a nine-run deficit against the Red Sox on April 18, 1950.

“That was a Yankee classic right there: ‘Juan’s Debut,’” Judge said.

New York had to punch back after Nestor Cortes spotted the Astros four early runs, tossing 33 pitches in a three-run first inning and surrendering a long Jake Meyers homer in the second. Cortes and Trevino adjusted their game plan from that point on, focusing on the top of the strike zone as the lefty retired 12 of the last 13 men he faced.

“I remember coming in the second inning and [pitching coach] Matt Blake telling me, ‘Just hold the rope. We’re going to get some runs across,’” Cortes said. “I just focused on myself to give innings, to get as many outs as I can.”

Said Astros manager Joe Espada: “[Cortes] kept pounding the zone and making pitches. We expanded our zone to try to do a little bit too much there.”

A three-time All-Star, four-time Silver Slugger and 2022 Home Run Derby champion, Soto has been far more celebrated for his thundering bat than any run-saving contributions. After spending a spring working alongside Soto, Judge remarked, “I don’t know where that [reputation] came from. He’s been a great defender the whole time I’ve seen him.”

“I've got to do stuff so they can start talking, stuff like I did today,” Soto said. “I know they're going to be talking about my defense later on.”

Perhaps Thursday’s performance will be a sign of things to come for Soto and the Yankees. This team has no affinity for Minute Maid Park, where they’ve sustained heartbreak and disappointment too many times, including season-ending playoff losses in 2017 and ‘19.

Yet Soto has no memories of a teary CC Sabathia or a dejected Brett Gardner pacing the pin-drop silent visiting clubhouse, nor of an anguished Judge attempting to explain October shortcomings. When Soto fought the Astros in the postseason, he won, helping his Nationals to a title in 2019. No wonder Soto believes these Yankees can do the same.

"Not only Opening Day. All year long,” Soto said. “This is a great win.”