Meet the Yankees: Five unlikely Bronx heroes to watch

ByColey Harvey ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 8, 2019

NEW YORK -- A few weeks ago, affixed to a corkboard in a hallway inside the cramped visitors clubhouse at Angel Stadium was one of the 34 iterations of a lineup the New York Yankees have used in the 35 games they've played this season.

As batting orders go, it was a far cry from any the Yankees had expected to use this season, let alone in the opening game of a three-city, nine-game West Coast swing.

But due to a bevy of spring training and in-season injuries, here they were, trotting out what looked like the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre stars with a three-man collection of big leaguers. The April 22 lineup read as follows: CF Gardner, 1B Voit, SS Torres, LF Frazier, RF Tauchman, DH Ford, 3B Urshela, C Higashioka, 2B Wade.

If you only recognize a few of those last names, don't be alarmed. Most casual baseball fans probably have little idea who most of the nine players are.

Amazingly, though, that group scratched out a 4-3, 14-inning road win over the Los Angeles Angels that got the trip off on a good note. It became yet another one of the noteworthy victories this ragtag collection of Yankees replacements have collected in their pursuit of the first-place Tampa Bay Rays.

"A lot of these guys are stepping up that we obviously didn't think were going to be here," first baseman Luke Voit said. "But they're getting opportunities and it's crazy."

Entering Wednesday night's game in the Bronx against the Seattle Mariners, the Yankees are winners of 15 of their past 20 games. Though New York has started getting some of its injured players back, most of those wins could be attributed to the contributions of a few key Yankees newcomers and relative unknowns. Let's meet them:

Mike Tauchman, outfielder

Background:Before this season, Tauchman had spent his professional career with one franchise. Drafted in 2013, the 10th-round pick joined the Colorado Rockies organization after spending four years playing at Bradley University in his home state of Illinois. While at Bradley, he was a two-time team captain. The day before the Yankees concluded Grapefruit League play this spring, Tauchman was traded to the Yankees in exchange for left-handed pitcher Phillip Diehl.

Fun fact: In high school, Tauchman quarterbacked his football team to a win over current San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's team. Tauchman, who played on offense and defense, intercepted Garoppolo in the game, and threw a decisive touchdown pass in a 14-7 win.

Key moment: April 16 vs. Boston. Tauchman will be the first to admit his time at the plate in pinstripes hasn't been the most memorable. At one point recently, he was in the middle of a 4-for-39 funk, and entering play Tuesday he was still hitting below the Mendoza line.

But those struggles aside, he has found himself in a number of key spots, and has delivered. Perhaps his biggest spot as a Yankee came in the bottom of the sixth in the series opener against the Boston Red Sox last month. He broke the game open when he launched a second-deck three-run homer to right. It was his first blast in pinstripes and punctuated an important early-season blowout victory over the defending champs.

What they're saying: "Everybody knows the story about kind of the bad luck the team has had injury-wise, and to be one of the guys that they trust to keep things going, it's great. It's huge." -- Tauchman

Thairo Estrada, infielder

Background: Although Yankees fans are just now getting to know Estrada, the 23-year-old infielder has been part of the organization for quite some time. Signed at 16, the native of the small town of Bejuma, Venezuela, joined the franchise as an international free agent in August 2012.

While in his home country just days before spring training last year, Estrada was shot in his right hip during an attempted robbery. For a period of time early in his rehab process, the bullet remained lodged in his hip. It was eventually removed, and he made a full recovery, turning heads at spring training this past year.

Twice this season, Estrada has been called up from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. His most recent move to The Show came April 21, after outfielder Aaron Judge suffered an oblique injury the day before.

Fun fact: Estrada's time in the Yankees' organization had been spent in the infield. But with the team's outfield depth thoroughly depleted with Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Hicks on the IL, the Yankees needed some help. So for two of the first three days of his return trip to the big leagues, Estrada played left field.

Key moment: May 6 vs. Seattle. His biggest moment as a Yankee came just this week. Simply facing off with fellow Venezuelan Felix Hernandez, a pitcher who has long been among the country's biggest baseball names, was the fulfillment of a "dream" for Estrada. Ten years Hernandez's junior, Estrada watched the Mariners pitcher regularly while growing up.

So it was surreal for Estrada when, on the very first pitch Hernandez threw to him Monday night, he lined a drive over the right-field wall for his first major league home run. Upon hitting the two-run, second-inning homer that helped open an already large Yankees lead, Estrada returned to a silent dugout. No Yankees acknowledged the hit right away. After Estrada walked the length of the dugout, players finally came over and celebrated with him. As 19-year veteran CC Sabathia said, the initial lack of acknowledgment was a sign "that we care a lot about a guy."

Later in the game, with the Yankees holding a 7-3 lead and reliever Adam Ottavino pitching in a bases-loaded jam, Estrada came up big in the field. Making his first start at short that night, Estrada fielded a slow chopper Ottavino induced, charging hard and firing a strong throw to first before face-planting behind the pitcher's mound. His throw was just hard enough, getting Tim Beckham to end Seattle's threat. When Estrada saw the ball coming his way, he said to himself: "This is my ground ball to get."

What they're saying: "When I think of Thairo, I love the player. He's going to be a good player in this league for a long time. I think of him in Anaheim, us bringing him out to left field in pregame wanting to kind of baptize him by fire there in left field. And then we throw him out there [in left] in San Francisco, a tough place to play, he handles it. Everything you throw at him, he's not overwhelmed by it. He's just stepped up for us in a limited role and played a big part for us." -- Yankees manager Aaron Boone

Gio Urshela, third baseman

Background: A native of Cartagena, Colombia, Urshela was originally signed to a minor league deal by Cleveland on May 29, 2009. Six years later, he made his major league debut against the Mariners. Throughout his journey to and through the big leagues, his glove has been high value. His bat hasn't been ... until this year.

Playing sparingly for Cleveland and Toronto in three of the past four seasons, Urshela's highest end-of-season batting average those years was .233. Through 26 games entering play Wednesday night, Urshela has a .360 average with eight doubles, already tying his single-season career high.

Urshela came to New York last August, when he was traded from the Blue Jays for cash considerations. He spent this past offseason allowing an Achilles injury to fully heal, and then made a few mechanical tweaks to his swing. The combination of health and enhanced mechanics has led to a solid year so far both at the plate and in the field. Since his call-up from Triple-A on April 6, Urshela, now out of options, has made it very hard for the Yankees to move him back down.

Fun fact: While his defense, in general, has been worth raving about in the month he has been up with the Yankees, it was Urshela's arm that was lauded when he was just 20 years old. That year -- 2012 -- Baseball America rated him as having the best infield arm in the Indians' organization.

Key moments: April 16 vs. Boston; May 7 vs. Seattle. Urshela has had many key moments in pinstripes -- most of them in the form of defensive web gems. His mastery of the hot corner has been so regular it's hard to pinpoint one specific moment in which he has been his absolute best. As even the Yankees admit, Urshela's average day at third is better than regular starter Andujar's best days at the hot corner. For that reason, in the near term, the Yankees will proceed with both players in the lineup often, Andujar serving primarily as the designated hitter and Urshela as the third baseman. Once the Yankees get healthier, they'll have to review the ways they'll use both.

Tuesday night, it was Urshela's revamped offense that made for perhaps his biggest moment as a Yankee. With his team trailing 4-2 and with a runner on and one out in the bottom of the ninth, Urshela roped a 433-foot homer to Yankee Stadium's Monument Park in center. The two-run shot tied the score and set upDJ LeMahieu's walk-off single three batters later.

In terms of Urshela's best defensive plays, there are two that rank atop a seemingly endless list of dazzling plays made nightly. On one against the Red Sox, Urshela completed a long, cross-body throw to first while his momentum took him slipping and falling to his right and into foul territory after fielding a Mookie Bettsground ball.It was one of those "how did he do that?" types of plays.

The other happened earlier this week, when Urshela charged a slow chopper in the series opener against Seattle. As he rushed to the ball on the infield grass, Urshela opted to go with his bare hand, scooping the ball and completing another strong throw to first to get Beckham.

What they're saying: "The way I would put it is ... he laughs at a ground ball coming to him. It's like he's getting into a warm bath. He just picks it up real nice, you know? He's got a really good arm, accurate. He just plays the position with real ease. He's got a great clock over there. It comes pretty easy to him." -- Boone

Cameron Maybin, outfielder

Background: Unlike everyone else on this list, Maybin has true, longtime big league experience in starting lineups. The 32-year-old is currently in his 13th season, having spent time with the Tigers, Marlins, Padres, Astros, Angels, Mariners, Giants and Indians. Maybin was with Cleveland's affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, last month when he was traded to the Yankees for cash considerations. That trade came asClint Frazierwent to the IL following an ankle sprain he suffered going back into a base in Anaheim.

A former first-round pick, Maybin was selected 10th overall by Detroit in 2005.

Fun fact: Did you know Maybin was once a bat boy? The Asheville, North Carolina, native served as one for the Asheville Tourists from 2000 to 2003. Author Thomas Wolfe and University of North Carolina men's basketball coach Roy Williams also were, at various points, bat boys for the ballclub.

Key moment: May 4 vs. Minnesota. For starters, Maybin has a hitting streak going, having reached base safely via hits in his first eight games as a Yankee. He kept that streak alive in the fifth inning Tuesday, beating out a chopper to short.

The timely hitting has come all throughout his stint in pinstripes. Even several days ago in San Francisco, during his first full series with the Yankees, Maybin had a couple of key hits that scored pivotal runs during the road sweep of the Giants. But his singular moment came in the top of the fourth inning of Saturday's game against the Twins. Although the Yankees ultimately lost, his effort in that particular fourth-inning moment temporarily spared starter J.A. Happ.

It was with the Yankees trailing 2-0 and with two on when Maybin took flight in right, elevating his glove high over the wall on a perfectly-timed jump. With a key catch, Maybin brought backJonathan Schoop's likely three-run homer, getting the Yankees out of a jam.

The biggest moment Maybin had in a win came Tuesday night, when he scored the winning run on LeMahieu's ninth-inning RBI single. Maybin delivered a one-out single right after Urshela's homer, and stole second before LeMahieu drove him home. It was LeMahieu's second go-ahead or winning hit in the Yankees' last at-bat this season; he also drove inTyler Wadefrom second during the series at Anaheim with a similarly well-struck single to right field.

What they're saying: "He's been big for us. He's playing really well in the field, wherever we put him. He's really fit in well in our clubhouse and brought something to our team. He's probably a little bit rejuvenated, getting this opportunity to play here. You can tell he's comfortable and likes being here, and then he's had really good at-bats for us, every single day. That's something that's really impressed me, whether he gets a hit or not or whatever, he's doing a really good job of making the pitcher work.

"He's one of those guys who has allowed us to not only stay afloat here over these last several weeks where we've hit some adversity, but he's had a big hand in us being able to win ballgames regularly." -- Boone

Domingo German, starting pitcher

Background: Four days after his 17th birthday, German agreed to his first professional contract, signing as an international free agent with the Marlins in August 2009. A year later, he made his pro debut. Seven years after that, he made his major league debut, giving up only one hit in a 2-inning effort for the Yankees against Baltimore.

While once valued as an up-and-coming piece of Miami's pitching future, German was dealt to New York in the 2014 trade that also brought Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Jones to the Bronx. In exchange, Martin Prado, David Phelps and cash considerations went from the Big Apple to South Florida. While Eovaldi went on to have success at Tampa Bay and then last season with Boston, German appears to have been the best part of that trade as far as the Yankees are concerned.

Since his debut with the Bombers three seasons ago, German has gone 8-8 with a 4.42 ERA, splitting duties as a reliever and a starter. It's what he has done since somewhat unexpectedly making the Opening Day roster coming out of spring training that has turned the most heads.

Beginning the year on the roster with Luis Severino and Sabathia (initially) on the IL, German is currently 6-1 with a 2.35 ERA and looking like a potential surprise Cy Young candidate.

Fun fact: German's curveball is his most respected pitch. It's a big breaker that hitters know is often thrown as a putout pitch, yet they still get their knees buckled by it. According to Statcast, German's curve ranks 144th among big leaguers in average spin, moving at a rather low 2,482 revolutions per minute. Despite that, he's one of the most prolific users of the curve to strike out opposing hitters. His 23 strikeouts via the curve are the fourth most in the majors this season. Only Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell have more.

Key moment: April 7 at Baltimore. Much like Urshela, it's hard to pick just one moment for German, who has been electrifying throughout the early stages of his 2019 campaign. While outsiders might have viewed him during spring training as a fringe roster player, he has blossomed into so much more.

That blossoming really took shape during his second start, when the Yankees closed out a weekend series in Baltimore. That afternoon is mostly remembered for being the day Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez went off on the Orioles, launching three home runs. But German's efforts shouldn't be overlooked. He took a no-hitter into the sixth inning and ended up giving up only two hits and a pair of runs. It was the kind of performance -- yes, even against the lowly Orioles -- that proved he could be a key piece of the rotation as the Yankees tried to get healthier.

In the five appearances he has made since, German has given up only eight earned runs and recorded 29 strikeouts. In starts German has made this season, opposing teams are averaging just 3.7 hits per game off him.

What they're saying: "It's about concentration when you're on the mound, and not losing that confidence. You understand that even if things don't go your way, you never lose your concentration. If a hitter is going to hit a good pitch, make sure that is exactly a pitch that you want to throw. When you execute a pitch, execute with conviction." -- German, through an interpreter

Who has come back already

Starting pitcher CC Sabathia (offseason knee/heart surgery) returned April 13

Catcher Gary Sanchez (left calf strain) returned April 24

Third baseman Miguel Andujar (small labrum tear) returned May 4

Outfielder Clint Frazier(left ankle sprain) returned May 6

Who is still on the IL

Outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury (plantar fascia)

Relief pitcher Ben Heller (Tommy John surgery)

Starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery (Tommy John surgery)

Shortstop Didi Gregorius (Tommy John surgery)

First baseman Greg Bird (plantar fascia)

Center fielder Aaron Hicks (lower back tightness)

Right fielder Aaron Judge (left oblique)

Outfielder Giancarlo Stanton (left shoulder/biceps strain)

Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (left calf strain)

Starting pitcher Luis Severino (right lat strain)

Relief pitcher Dellin Betances (right shoulder impingement)

Starting pitcher James Paxton (left knee inflammation)

Hicks could make his season debut next week, at the same time Gregorius could hit in extended spring training games in Tampa, Florida. It's possible both position players, plus Paxton and Betances, are back in pinstripes by the middle of next month. With setbacks to Stanton and Tulowitzki, it's unclear exactly when they'll return. It's also unclear exactly how long Ellsbury will be out. It's the same with Judge, although he's expected to be shelved for quite a while. The others aren't expected back until after the All-Star break.

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