MOOSIC — It was only the first game of his rehab stint with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, but Gary Sanchez feels “normal.”
And he looked normal, too.
The New York Yankees catcher homered in one of his three at-bats and also caught seven innings against the Rochester Red Wings on Sunday. From his first at-bat, when he missed a home run by just a few feet, to guiding starting pitcher Luis Cessa through seven impressive innings, Sanchez made his presence known.
Despite playing in his first game since he was placed on the 10-day disabled list on June 25 with a right groin strain the 25-year-old catcher was a difference-maker and one of the reasons the RailRiders (48-43) were able to split their four-game series against Rochester (43-46) by taking the series finale, 3-1.
“I feel healthy. I feel good,” Sanchez said through an interpreter. “I feel normal. I feel good after a long rehab, but I feel fine.”
Sanchez got a couple early tests behind home plate, having to block a few breaking balls from Cessa that were in the dirt. He even made a nice catch in foul territory during his final inning.
Defensivley, Sanchez passed with flying colors. Then it was on to the batter’s box.
Facing Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Ervin Santana, who was rehabbing with the Red Wings, the two-time All-Star got the best of Sanchez in the second inning. Sanchez struck out on eight pitches, but not before barely missing a home run by driving a Santana delivery just a few feet outside the left-field foul pole.
In his second at-bat, this one coming in the fourth inning, Sanchez wouldn’t miss. He drove a pitch from Santana into the billboards above the concourse in left field. It was a solo shot that provided the RailRiders a 1-0 lead.
“I’m happy that I got a good pitch to hit. The contact was good,” Sanchez said. “Most important part of (this) is that I feel healthy and I’m ready to go.”
“Gary’s awesome. He’s so unassuming, but he can flat-out play,” RailRiders manager Bobby Mitchell said. “He obviously helped us out. He hit that homer a mile, but he also did a great job behind the plate blocking. So calm. I think that’s a calming thing for the pitchers to see. He’s just really easy-going and he does a great job. And he came out fine, which was the main thing.”
While Sanchez isn’t having the type of season that sent him to the All-Star Game in 2017, when he paired 33 home runs with 90 RBI, or his 20-home run, 53-game stint with the Yankees in 2016, the Yankees catcher has still been able to provide that same surge in power (14 home runs and 41 RBI in 61 games) despite his .190 batting average.
However, missing out on these past few weeks of games and not coming back until after the all-star break, Sanchez has the perfect opportunity to use a hard reset on his season and gear up for a big second half and playoff push.
“(I can’t) wait for the second half of the season,” Sanchez said. “It’s been quite a while already that I’ve been hurt, so I’m anxious to get back and help the team win and hopefully get to the playoffs.”
It wasn’t just Sanchez who had a big day at the plate.
Billy McKinney hit his 13th home run of the season to start the sixth inning. Five batters later, with runners on first and second, Abiatal Avelino laced a RBI double down the third-base line to give the RailRiders a 3-1 lead and deliver the final blow to Santana and Rochester.
“Yeah, I was a little nervous. I felt like it wrapped (the right field foul pole) and I was glad (first base umpire Richard Riley) made the call,” McKinney said of his home run. “I was glad it got out and I helped us get the lead.
“I felt good. It’s kind of hard to out-muscle (Sanchez). He definitely hit that one real deep.”
While RailRiders like Sanchez, McKinney and Avelino were sharp at the plate, Cessa was just as dialed in on the mound.
The 26-year-old right-hander did a good job of attacking batters early with his fastball before putting them away with his slider. Cessa finished with seven innings of one-run baseball, giving up just four hits and walking a batter while striking out five. Of the 60 pitches he threw, 16 were swings and misses.
It also helped that Cessa had Sanchez as his battery mate.
“I think I used a lot of my fastball strike one. I like to be ahead in the count every time, so I can finish with my slider,” Cessa said. “I pitch in and a little elevated with the fastball and finish with the slider. Today I was really effective.
“I’ve known (Sanchez) for, like, the last four years, so (he) knows me, I know him. We stay on the same page all the time, so it’s easier. I think I only changed (pitches) two times the whole game.”
Sanchez will continue his rehab with the RailRiders as he is expected to be the designated hitter for nine innings Monday in Toledo, take a day off Tuesday and then catch nine innings on Wednesday. … OF Clint Frazier was optioned back to the RailRiders after Sunday’s Yankees game. … 1B Mike Ford is day-to-day with a bruised foot, suffered in Saturday’s game. There are no fractures and Ford is being treated for the bruise located on the top of his foot.
RailRiders 3, Red Wings 1
E: Reginatto (4); DP: Red Wings 0, RailRiders 2; LOB: Red Wings 3, RailRiders 7; 2B: Wade (5), Avelino (4); HR: Sanchez (1), McKinney (13).
Rochester`000`010`000 — 1
RailRiders`000`102`000 — 3
Santana (L, 0-1)`5.2`4`3`3`1`7
Cessa (W, 2-0)`7`4`1`1`1`5
Gallegos (S, 2)`2`0`0`0`0`1
IBB: McBroom (by Baxendale).
HBP: Reginatto (by Gallegos), Drury (by Santana).
Umpires: Mike Wiseman, HP; Richard Riley, 1B; John Bacon, 3B.
Time: 2:12; Attendance: 7,898.
Reach DJ Eberle at 570-991-6398 or on Twitter @ByDJEberle