Thursday August 20th, 2015

1. Beginner’s luck

Tigers rookie Daniel Norris experienced a night of extremes on Wednesday in Chicago. In the second inning, facing Jon Lester, he drilled his first career home run, a two-run shot to dead center in Wrigley Field—noteworthy not just because it was an American League pitcher doing so, but also because it was an AL one doing so in his first professional plate appearance in either the minors or majors. Here’s the blast, which came with a runner on first, gave the Tigers a 3–0 lead and was estimated at 419 feet by MLB Advanced Media’s Statcast:

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Via Grantland’s Jonah Keri, that made Norris just the third pitcher since World War II to homer in his first major league plate appearance, following the Dodgers’ Dan Bankhead (Aug. 26, 1947 against the Pirates) and the NationalsTommy Milone (Sept. 3, 2011 against the Mets). When they stepped into the batter’s box, both of those pitchers at least had some passing familiarity with the proceedings at the professional level, having taken their swings elsewhere—in the Negro American League in the case of the former, in the Eastern and International Leagues for the latter. The batter’s box was terra incognita for Norris, a 2011 Blue Jays draftee who was acquired by the Tigers in the David Price blockbuster on July 30.

In hitting his home run, Norris joined the RaysNathan Karns as the only AL pitchers to homer this year. He’s the first Tigers pitcher to homer since Jason Johnson did so against the Dodgers on June 8, 2005.

Alas, no good wallop goes unpunished. In the fifth inning of what wound up as a 15–8 win for the Tigers, Norris was forced from the game due to an oblique strain on his right side, an injury that will force him to the disabled list and one which could end his season after just nine major league starts—five with the Blue Jays in April before being sent to Triple A and four since the trade. Overall, he has a 4.43 ERA and 4.90 FIP in 44 2/3 innings.

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

2. Oh, Henry!

Orioles leftfielder Henry Urrutia’s first major league homer couldn’t have come at a better time. His solo shot off the Mets’ Carlos Torres on Wednesday night was a walkoff, giving Baltimore a 5–4 victory that enabled them to remain half a game behind the Angels in the race for the second AL wild-card spot.

Urrutia’s home run completed Baltimore’s comeback from a 3–1 sixth-inning deficit. Jonathan Schoop’s two-run homer off flagging starter Noah Syndergaard tied the game, and after Wilmer Flores homered in the top of the seventh, Adam Jones answered in the bottom of the frame, tying the score at 4–4.

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Recalled from Triple A Norfolk on Aug. 15, Urrutia is a 28-year-old Cuban defector who first got a cup of coffee with the Orioles back in 2013, his first season stateside. He hit so well at Double and Triple A that year that he earned a spot on the World team for the All-Star Futures Game, then joined the O's right after the break. Alas, he hit just .276/.276/.310 in 58 PA for the big club, with a triple representing his only extra-base hit, and his '14 season was a write-off due to surgery to repair a sports hernia.

Urrutia has rebounded this year, however. He got the call to the bigs after hitting .292/.344/.414 with 10 homers in 474 PA at Norfolk, with the O’s recalling him earlier this week after designating for assignment David Lough, demoting Junior Lake and dispensing with Travis Snider. So far, Urrutia has gone 4-for-19 with five RBIs, including three in Baltimore’s 18–2 thrashing of the Athletics on Aug. 16.

Urrutia became the fifth Orioles player to hit a walkoff as his first major league home run, following Merv Rettenmund (1968), Jim Hardin ('69), Dave Criscione ('77) and Chris Hoiles ('90). Via the Elias Sports Bureau, he’s the first Cuban-born player to do so since Cubs rookie Jose Arcia in '68.

The moment was obviously a special one for Urrutia, a childhood friend of Jose Abreu and a former teammate of Alex Guerrero with Lenadores de Las Tunas of Cuba’s Serie Nacional before he defected in 2011. Mobbed by his teammates, hit in the face with a shaving cream pie and showered with cold water after his game-winning blast, he fought back tears as he was presented with the baseball, which he gave to his 16-month old son. Via the Baltimore Sun’s Eduardo A. Encina:

“I’m not waiting for a baseball when I made the homer,” Urrutia said. “So when the guy told me I have your baseball for you, wow. That’s the best gift for me tonight. Now I can give that baseball to my son. And my son one day can say, 'This is the first homer from my dad in the big leagues.'”

Al Bello/Getty Images

3. Two Birds, Twin killing

When the Yankees called up first base prospect Greg Bird last week, it appeared that he’d get a chance or two to give Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez breathers as the Yankees worked through a stretch of 16 games in 16 days. But with Teixeira sidelined by a deep bone bruise since fouling a ball off his right leg during Monday’s wild win over the Twins, Bird has already gotten more of an opportunity than expected, and he’s made the most of it.

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On Monday, Bird led off the 10th inning of a tie game with a double and ended up producing the winning run via pinch-runner Brendan Ryan. He followed that by going 2-for-4 with an RBI single in Tuesday’s 8–4 win, and on Wednesday. the 22-year-old slugger helped complete the sweep of the Twins via not one but two homers off starter Ervin Santana, the first of his major league career.

Bird’s first homer, a towering two-run shot into the second deck of the rightfield stands, came in the bottom of the fourth inning and broke a scoreless tie. His second, also a two-run homer, came in the bottom of the sixth, just after the Twins had rallied for three runs to take the lead, and landed in the Yankees’ bullpen. Here’s the pair:

After the game, Santana attempted to throw shade on the rookie’s second homer, telling reporters, “I left the first one up—a changeup. But the second pitch was very good. Down and away. He just hit it very good. In another park, it's probably a double. But here, it's a joke."

The joke is on Santana, who has allowed 1.8 homers per nine this year and has served up six in 17 1/3 innings in the new Yankee Stadium since it opened in 2009. Via ESPN Home Run Tracker, Bird’s first homer was estimated at 384 feet, the second at 420 feet—long enough to be out in just about every major league ballpark, including Santana's home park, Target Field.

Alas, it was more or less par for the course for the Twins when it comes to the Bronx Bombers. They’ve gone 31–71 against the Yankees since the start of the 2001 season, including 1–5 this year. That record doesn’t include their 2–12 postseason mark in the 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010 Division Series. They’re 8–19 at the new Yankee Stadium, including the postseason.

As for Bird, he’s now hitting .333/.368/.722 through his first 19 plate appearances, a strong enough showing that the team can afford to let Teixeira heal while the rookie takes his cuts. At the very least, he’s in the lineup for Thursday night’s series opener against Cleveland.

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