It was just one win -- but opener felt bigger than that for Yanks

March 29th, 2024

It was just one game for the Yankees at Minute Maid Park, so often a house of horrors for them over the past seven seasons. But in the end, it was like a perfect game for them to start their season. It was because of the way it started and the way it ended and just about everything that happened in between. In the first of 162, the Yankees got a win as good as they will get over the next 161.

The game that started with them in a 4-0 hole by the bottom of the second inning ultimately provided a storybook finish -- for the Yankees, anyway -- in the bottom of the ninth when the new guy, , threw out Mauricio Dubón at home plate trying to score the tying run. It was a good throw by Soto, known more for his bat than his defense, and a better tag by catcher Alex Trevino, and when Alex Bregman grounded out right after that, the Yankees were 1-0.

This was the ballpark where the Astros had won Games 6 and 7 of the 2017 American League Championship Series after the Yankees led that series 3-2. This was the ballpark where Jose Altuve had hit the walk-off home run to end the 2019 ALCS, and where the Astros had won two of the four games when they were sweeping the Yankees two years ago in yet another ALCS. This was an opponent, the Astros, who have dominated their league the way the Yankees once did, playing in seven straight Championship Series and four World Series, two of which they won.

But on this one day, it was the Yankees for whom just about everything broke right after they were in that early hole. Soto was on base three times, knocked in a run and made that throw to save the game. Aaron Judge doubled and scored. Nestor Cortes, starting on Opening Day because Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ ace, is hurt, pitched like an ace after being down 4-0, keeping his team in the game. Oswaldo Cabrera, starting at third because DJ LeMahieu is hurt, hit a home run, while another new guy, Alex Verdugo (moving from the outfield at Fenway Park to the Bronx the way Johnny Damon once did) made two fine plays in left field.

Again: Only one comeback win. But there won’t be one any better than that for the Yankees this regular season. It was the setting, it was the opponent and it was the circumstances. Mostly, it was Soto doing Soto things, from the time he tried to wear out the Astros starter, Framber Valdez, with an eight-pitch walk on his first official Yankees at-bat.

“There’s no question that [Soto] embodies who we want to be on offense,” manager Aaron Boone said after the win. “Wear you down, grind you out.”

So, too, did Yankees pitching over the last seven innings, with Cortes and all the relievers who followed, all the way through closer Clay Holmes, shutting the Astros down and shutting them out. Then, in the most important moment of the game, the ball was in Soto’s hand before it ended in the mitt of Trevino, who made a pretty great, in-the-moment sweep tag of the runner who would have drawn Houston even at 5.

“I just prepared before that happens,” Soto said. “My mindset was, 'Just try to make a great throw.'”

Speaking with the media later, Boone would describe Soto as the “missing element” from last year’s Yankees team, which finished 82-80 and in fourth place in the AL East. He was all of that on Thursday. Soto didn’t hit the two home runs that Giancarlo Stanton did in his Yankees debut six years ago in Toronto. But he did got that first hit as a Yankee, knocked in his first run as a Yankee and, when the game was on the line, he pretty much got the save as much as Clay Holmes did.

Three times since 2017, the Yankees' season ended against the Astros. In so many ways, Houston has been what New York once was, and still aspires to be. Then, almost before the Yankees knew it, they were knocked down early on Opening Day of a new season. This time they got up.

“I’m here to try and win a World Series,” Boone said the other day, asked about his job status in the last year of his current contract (the team has a club option for 2025). “That’s what I’m hell-bent on. Like that’s where all my energy and all my focus is. ... So I don’t know if I look at it as this has to happen for me to save this job. I’m in competition mode of trying to be the best we can absolutely be.”

For this one day, this one Opening Day, the Yankees were at their best when they needed to be against the team that has been their nemesis, been better than they are, for a very long time. The scoreboard said 5-4 at the end. Looked perfect to the New York Yankees.