Bird filling key role in Teixeira’s absence

It was only a little more than a week ago that Yankees manager Joe Girardi contemplating using Alex Rodriguez, a season-long designated hitter, as a first baseman as part of the plan to deal with the loss to injury of Mark Teixeira. Girardi was concerned that the Yankees might be vulnerable against left-handed pitching with the switch-hitting Teixeira out of the lineup.

Fortunately for the Yankees, the play of rookie Greg Bird as Tex’s caddy has turned this situation into a non-issue. Bird got the most important hit of Monday’s 8-6 victory over the Orioles, a three-run home run in the seventh inning that unlocked a 5-5 score. It came off a left-handed pitcher, too, as Brian Matusz got too much of the plate with a slider on a count of 0-2.

As Matusz was jogging in from the bullpen, Bird ducked into the runway and watched some quick video of the lefthander, which he later said may not have helped all that much. “For me, it’s more important what I see from the batter’s box,” Bird said.

Bird anticipated fastball from Matusz and adjusted when he saw the spin indicating breaking ball. It was a big-league approach from a young hitter who has gotten more and more comfortable in the big leagues, so much so that you don’t hear too many people around the Yankees mentioning Teixeira’s injury any more.

That is the way of baseball. A player goes on the disabled list, and someone else must step up. Bird has done that for the most part. He is batting .263 with five home runs and 17 RBI in 76 at-bats. And get this: against left-handed pitching, the lefty-swinging Bird is 6-for-17 (.353) with a double, two home runs and six RBI. Who needs A-Rod to leave his DH perch with this kind of production?

Rodriguez also contributed a home run (No. 29, career No. 683), a solo shot in the fifth off Wei-Yin Chen as the Yankees clawed away at a 4-1 Baltimore lead. A two-run homer by John Ryan Murphy later in the inning put the Yanks ahead, 5-4. Justin Wilson gave up a game-tying homer to Manny Machado in the top of the seventh before Bird settled matters in the bottom half.

His blow was the 38th homer of at least three runs (31 three-run homers and seven grand slams), the most by a major-league team in one season since 2009 when the Phillies had 39. The Yankees had have multiple homers in six of their past 10 games.

The long balls were vital for the Yankees to bail out Michael Pineda, who gave up four runs (three on a home run by Jonathan Schoop) in the second inning and then allowed only one walk and one hit over the next four innings. Girardi credited Murphy, the catcher, with helping the struggling pitcher through the outing.

Labor Day marked the third holiday this season on which Pineda started. The others were Mother’s Day and Fourth of July. In those starts, the righthander was 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 20 innings.

After Bird’s homer, Girardi went with his twin bullpen aces to finish off the game, but it was a bit dicey. Dellin Betances had a weird eighth in which he walked three batters and struck out three. The next inning, Andrew Miller was touched for a run but prevailed to record his 32nd save.

The victory coupled with Toronto’s loss at Boston moved the Yankees within a half-game of the Blue Jays in the American League East.

The Yankees are 12-7 in the games following Aug. 17 when Teixeira fouled a ball off his right shinbone. He started one of those games and pinch-hit in another, and the Yanks lost both. So without Tex taking part in games over this stretch, the Yankees are 12-5. Sure, they may have had a better record if he did not get hurt, but clearly they are succeeding despite his loss.

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