NEW YORK -- There were no guarantees that Greg Bird would be able to return in time to impact the Yankees' 2017 season. As weeks on the disabled list turned into months, an interminable series of doctors' waiting rooms, abbreviated Minor League assignments and finally a surgical procedure, one thought kept running through his mind: October.
On an unseasonably warm evening in the Bronx, Bird delivered the hit that extended the Yankees' campaign for at least one more day. His mammoth seventh-inning home run off the Indians' Andrew Miller held up as the difference in the Yanks' 1-0 victory in Game 3 of the American League Division Series presented by Doosan.
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"What a wild ride it's been," Bird said. "I knew we had a good team and we'd be here, and I was hoping that I could be part of it."
The Yankees had a good reason to keep the lights on. Before Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez were the most celebrated "Baby Bombers," Yanks scouts rated Bird as the organization's best pure hitter. He showed flashes of that at the end of the 2015 season, slugging 11 homers in 46 games while exhibiting a sweet left-handed stroke that was tailor-made for Yankee Stadium.
That swing was part of the reason that Yankees manager Joe Girardi did not entertain pinch-hitting for Bird in the seventh inning Sunday, despite the left-on-left matchup against the dominant Miller. Girardi noted that Miller's splits against lefties and righties are nearly identical, so he elected to roll the dice with Bird.
"I think he's built for this park, I really do," Girardi said. "Just the way he has played in the playoffs and the way he finished up the year, I felt really good. It's great to have him back healthy. It sure is."
With a 1-1 count, Miller reared back and fired a 95.2 mph fastball that caught a healthy portion of the strike zone. Bird barreled the ball, which rocketed off his bat at 106.7 mph and traveled a Statcast-calculated 396 feet into the second deck in right field, setting off an ecstatic celebration among many of the 48,614 customers in the building.
"I knew when it hit his bat, it was trouble," Miller said. "When it left my hand, I thought I had a good thought process on what I was trying to do. My game isn't trying to be too fine. I feel like the ball came out of my hand good. It had good velocity. It could've certainly been a better pitch, but I think what I was trying to do was just wrong in that situation and I paid dearly for it."
Yankees people regard Bird as a cool customer with a low resting heartbeat, but the first baseman screamed and pumped his fist as he began to round the bases, then thumped his chest when he'd returned to the dugout. Sanchez said it was the first time he'd ever seen Bird so emotional and animated.
"The excitement's for our team and the guys in the clubhouse," Bird said. "Just sharing that with them and getting fired up with them and helping this team win games, really, is huge. I was really excited. I'm not going to lie. But that excitement is for our team and for the guys in there that have been working their butts off all year."
Bird and Masahiro Tanaka had been unquestionably the Yanks' brightest performers leading into the season opener, with Bird crushing Grapefruit League pitching almost as regularly as Tanaka was dominating it. Both players saw their fortunes turn in the regular season; Bird fouled a ball off his right ankle in a March 30 exhibition against the Phillies in Clearwater, Fla., and went just 6-for-60 before finally landing on the disabled list at the beginning of May.
While Tanaka endured a year of peaks and valleys, Bird seemed to be stuck in place. He continued to complain of discomfort in the ankle until a cause was finally discovered, and on July 18, he had surgery to remove the os trigonum bone from his right ankle.
Six weeks later, Bird was back in the big league lineup, belting eight homers with 25 RBIs in his final 29 games of the regular season. To his teammates, none of those blasts measured up to Sunday's.
"I could barely hold my emotions in," Judge said. "He's had a couple at-bats off Miller in this series. I had a good feeling with him walking up there. He got something out over the plate and did some damage."
Bird thanked his family and close friends for helping him get through the dark times, saying they knew who they were. After making it to this glimmering light at the end of the tunnel, the long wait seemed to be worth it.
"It was just an incredible experience, an incredible game, and we're not done," Bird said. "So that's the best part of it, too, is we get to keep this thing going and keep playing baseball."