Yankees Thoughts: Juan Soto Saves the Day

The Yankees began the 2024 season in Houston against the hated Astros, and for the first four innings, Opening Day was playing out like nearly every Yankees-Astros game over the last seven years. It didn’t finish that way though.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees.

1. The last meaningful game the Yankees played was on Sunday, Aug. 13 of last season. It was an 8-7 walk-off loss to the Marlins in Miami, a game the Yankees led by four runs going into the bottom of the ninth. That game ended the 2023 Yankees season, and the remaining 44 games were a mere formality, a two-and-a-half month slog to the finish line in which the Yankees barely finished above .500 and then retained their manager, general manager and their entire front office.

Thursday’s Opening Day game in Houston was the first meaningful game for the Yankees in seven-and-a-half months. And through the first four innings, you would have never known it was a new year and a new season. Those four innings played out like a continuation of last season. Game 1 of 2024 was looking like Game 163 of 2023.

2. Nestor Cortes was named the Opening Day starter out of necessity and through two innings pitched like the Nestor Cortes that the Yankees, Orioles and Mariners didn’t want once upon a time. During the first inning of the first game of the season to start a seven-games-in-seven-day stretch, Aaron Boone had Nick Burdi warming up in the bullpen. That’s how well Cortes was doing.

Cortes allowed three runs in the first inning and a solo home run to the 9-hitter to lead off the second. Framber Valdez and the Astros were getting big outs when they needed them and big hits when they needed them as well. Cortes and the Yankees weren’t, just like they never seem to do against the Astros.

3. Juan Soto’s first plate appearance as a Yankee poetically resulted in a walk, but he was left stranded in the first when Aaron Judge hit into an inning-ending double play. The Yankees left the bases loaded in the second when Jose Trevino banged into a 6-4-3 double play and they were left loaded again in the fourth when Alex Verdugo banged into a 4-6-3. The Yankees were getting the kind of “traffic” Boone dreams of, but they were ruining it with inning-ending double plays. (We’re coming up on the three-year anniversary of Boone saying, “Typically, the better teams are going to hit into double plays,” after the Yankees’ loss to the Red Sox on June 4, 2021.) Valdez had thrown more balls than strikes and the Yankees hadn’t made him pay.

4. Everything changed in the fifth inning, thanks to the Yankees’ two worst hitters. Cortes had put up back-to-back scoreless frames in the third and fourth, and the Astros’ lead remained 4-0. Then the Yankees’ .570 OPS duo went to work.

Trevino posted a .570 OPS in 55 games last season and Oswaldo Cabrera barely beat him out with a .574 OPS in 115 games. (Yes, Cabrera was allowed to play in 115 major-league games with a .574 OPS. That’s how bad the 2023 Yankees’ offense was.) But it was those two who got the Yankees’ fifth-inning rally started with a walk and single. The catcher who is strictly a major leaguer because of his defense and the utility player who was only in the lineup because the everyday third baseman is on the injured list, and the player the Yankees traded for to avoid having to play Cabrera didn’t arrive in Houston until 2 a.m.

5. After Gleyber Torres walked, Soto ripped a line-drive single to right to plate the Yankees’ first run. Following back-to-back strikeouts from Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rizzo was drilled by a pitch to score a run and Anthony Volpe drew a walk to score another. Through five innings, the Yankees had cut the deficit to 4-3.

Trailing by one in the sixth, Cabrera came to the plate with one out. For as bad as Cabrera looked in his first at-bat of the game against Valdez (a four-pitch strikeout in which his swings looked as if he were blindfolded), it was startling that he was able putting the ball in play in a 1-2 count against Valdez in the fifth for a single and then clobber a home run on a 1-2 pitch off Rafael Montero in the sixth to tie the game. Maybe it’s just one game, or maybe Cabrera is beginning to figure things out.

6. The same goes for Volpe. Volpe looked like a different player on Thursday than he did for all of 2023. His at-bats on Opening Day were battles. He singled in the first inning, walked on four pitches in the fourth, walked on four pitches in the fifth and drew an eight-pitch walk in the seventh. (He ended his day with a strikeout against Josh Hader, but there’s no shame in that.) It was the best Volpe has ever looked at the plate for an entire game. The Volpe we watched on Thursday was not the Volpe we watched for 159 games last year.

7. The Yankees took the lead in the seventh on a Verdugo sacrifice fly (a skill previous iterations of the Yankees lacked), and four innings of shutout relief work from Jonathan Loaisiga, Ian Hamilton and Clay Holmes gave the Yankees a 5-4 win. It wasn’t as smooth as that reads though, and why would it be with Holmes on the mound in the ninth?

There was no way the Yankees were going to trail by four runs early to the Astros in Houston, then mount an improbable comeback to get within one run, then tie the game on a home run off the bat of the 9-hitter the team desperately doesn’t want to play, then take the lead and coast to a win. It wasn’t going to be easy.

8. You pretty much know which Holmes you’re going to get from the very first pitch he throws, and Holmes’ first pitch on Thursday nearly took Mauricio Dubon’s head off. Dubon hit a line-drive single on the next pitch. I figured either Dubon was going to steal second and Jose Altuve was going to drive him in to tie the game or Altuve was just going to skip tying the game and club a two-run, walk-off home run to destroy a game that was three outs away from being a glorious win. Altuve swung at the first pitch and lined out to Torres.

When Yordan Alvarez walked up the plate all I could envision was Holmes leaving his sinker up and Alvarez hitting a ball to a place no other player had ever hit a ball in MinuteMaid Park. Holmes got the ground ball he needed to possibly end the game from Alvarez, but it was perfectly placed and instead resulted in a single. Wither runners on first and second and one out, it was like the Astros were trying to make their inevitable comeback and walk-off win as painful as possible.

9. Holmes put a second-pitch sinker right over the middle of the plate for Kyle Tucker to extend his arms on and drive to right field. Dubon rounded third and headed for home to tie the game as Soto gathered the ball to throw a laser to the plate. Dubon tried to evade Trevino to get to the plate with a headfirst slide, but Trevino tagged him and Dubon was called out.

I’m not sure Trevino did tag Dubon, and for that, I’m thankful James Hoye called Dubon out on the field. I’m even more thankful there wasn’t a sufficient angle of the play to overturn the call. The call stood, and two pitches later, Holmes got Alex Bregman to ground out to end the game. A nice, clean one-inning save for Holmes that included three hits and a runner getting thrown out at the plate.

10. I couldn’t sleep on Thursday night. Not because of the excitement of the win, the idea of Yankees baseball being back or the Yankees hitting on the money line as an underdog. I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t get the idea of life without Soto out of my head, and the thought of him leaving at the end of the season, and ending up with the Mets, or anywhere other than the Yankees had me tossing and turning.

Soto was the Yankees’ first baserunner of the game, drove in the first run of the game, added a second walk and threw out the would-be game-tying run in the bottom of the ninth. This wasn’t a one-game blip. This is who he is. He’s the best hitter with the base eye in baseball. A 25-year-old superstar. Not a generational superstar, but an all-time superstar, who has achieved more italicized bold on his Baseball Reference page by age 25 than the rest of the roster has combined.

I realize there’s a better chance of Boone becoming Bruce Bochy than there is of Soto signing an extension without testing free agency (though maybe that has or will change given Scott Boras’ performance this offseason). But Soto is the guy and needs to be a Yankee for the rest of his career. I can’t just watch this guy play for the Yankees for another 161 games and then possible playoff games. I need to watch him play for the Yankees until my three-year-old and one-year-old are teenagers.

For now, I will enjoy every game he is a Yankee, and thankfully, there’s another one on Friday. And another one on Saturday, and Sunday, and so on. Yankees baseball is back.