TAMPA – The fire beneath Troy Tulowitzki’s trademark stoicism came out as he rounded first base after his first swing of the spring, and first in a game setting with big-league players since July 28, 2017, sailed over the right-field wall. He looked over at close friend Marcus Stroman. He put his head down and yelled some things that aren’t said in polite company. He peered into the Toronto Blue Jays dugout as he rounded third base and headed for home.
There was more shouting after he touched home plate, and a big smile amid the hugs once he got back to the New York Yankees dugout. He revelled in every single moment.
“No doubt about it, extra special,” Tulowitzki said of drawing more satisfaction from hitting the home run against the Blue Jays, who released him in December. “That was the team that basically told me I couldn’t play anymore.
“It’s spring training. It is what it is,” he added. “But it was a big day for myself.”
Of that, there’s no doubt, and perhaps even more so than the home run, a pair of smooth-as-ever defensive plays on range grounders to his right offered the Yankees some early returns on their decision to use Tulowitzki as the bridge to Didi Gregorius’s return from injury.
Now two at-bats – he also grounded out – plus three innings in the field, by no means prove that the 34-year-old, five-time all-star is going to regain his past form, and make the Blue Jays regret their decision to eat nearly all of $38-million he’s owed through 2020.
Far from it, and Tulowitzki himself admits his game still needs plenty of work, and he must show the durability needed to survive baseball’s daily grind. But he’ll take the instant validation for all his work in rehabbing the ankle he shredded in his final game with the Blue Jays two years ago, the heels he had surgically repaired last spring, even if he felt validated months ago.
“My instant validation (came) when I held a workout and I saw how many teams reached out to me. That was instant validation, honestly,” said Tulowitzki. “From that day forward, I said there are some believers there, even though there was a team that doubted me. There were a lot of teams that believed in me.”
Those believers include Stroman, who watched Tulowitzki through “the tedious long days, the grind,” and described the home run after all he’s endured as “really exciting.” The two remain in regular contact, and Stroman described how grateful he was to his former teammate for all the baseball and life wisdom he passed along.
Still, while Round 1 went to Tulowitzki, “it’s not going to happen in season, I promise you that,” Stroman said with a grin. “I started him off with a curveball, just to mess around and he hit a sinker away pretty good. That’s baseball. I’ve got a lot in store and I’m ready for the season.”
Tulowitzki looks forward to it, saying that his shouts on the basepaths were “just my own stuff” and describing Stroman “as a heck of a pitcher.”
“We’ll be competing,” he said. “Stro is Stro, man. He likes to compete too.”
“I play with emotion, I care a lot about this game, I’ve put a lot of work in,” added Tulowitzki. “All that rehab I was doing, all the hours I put in trying to come back from my surgery, there are a lot of people who said forget about it. It was only one day, but a lot of people said I’ll never make it back on a baseball field again. This is spring training, but for me, there was extra emotion in that. It’s the biggest spring training homer I’ve ever hit in my life. That being said, I got a little pumped out there. But if anyone tells you you’re done, you’re going to have a little extra fire.”
The Yankees and Blue Jays meet 19 times during the regular season.
“Can’t wait,” said Tulowitzki. “Today didn’t count. But it counted for myself. It will be exciting.”
STROMAN FEELS RIGHT: Marcus Stroman also gave up a home run to Kyle Higashioka in his two innings of work, allowing three hits and a walk with one strikeout in the 3-0 Blue Jays loss at George M. Steinbrenner Field. While his command was off – only 17 of his 37 pitches went for strikes – the 27-year-old was pleased to be on the mound without worrying about the soreness in his shoulder that dogged him last year, as well as the blister that ultimately shut him down.
“It’s the first time I’ve been out there feeling like myself since, I don’t know, 2017,” said Stroman, who when asked how the physical differences impacted him, replied: “I’m back to not having to think about anything. Not having to think about not throwing a certain pitch because I know I don’t have it in there, or I know I can’t get extension on a certain pitch. I’m back to doing what I want, whenever I want to do it and I can’t put into words how great that feels. My shoulder feels great. I haven’t felt like this since 2017. Last year was a battle. So just to go out there knowing I have my entire arsenal and repertoire in the tank, it’s going to be a fun year.”
Stroman was regularly 92-93 m.p.h. with his sinker, and his velocity should build over the course of the spring. He talked about how strong he felt while working out, and the likelihood is that he didn’t show the Yankees his full array of tricks given how often he’s likely face them in season.
The Blue Jays paired Stroman with Danny Jansen behind the plate so the two can get in sync on how to best utilize his arsenal.
MOVE ALONG: A New York writer asked Marcus Stroman about his recent comments about not getting a contract extension, but having already spoken his piece, he bit his tongue. “I’m not speaking on that. That’s way in the past, I haven’t even thought about that since,” Stroman replied. “I’m worrying about pitching in the AL East. We have some tough lineups I have to go up against so just preparing my body and my mind and just getting ready to go.”
THIRD FOR DRURY: Brendan Drury started at third base again and manager Charlie Montoyo said the plan for the versatile infielder right now is to play him at the hot corner “and then go from there.” Barring injury, Drury will be the opening day third baseman but will be displaced once Vladimir Guerrero Jr., arrives. Drury has also been taking ground balls at second base during routine work. “To me, he’s one of our key players,” Montoyo said of Drury. “I want him to have a good year because I think he can.” Drury scooped up Troy Tulowitzki’s grounder in the second and threw to first to get his mentor.
SHORT HOPS: Danny Barnes, who struggled with left knee tendinitis last year, surrendered a rocket double to Aaron Judge leading off the third but rebounded to strike out Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Hicks and then get Gelyber Torres to ground out. “Danny Barnes is one of those guys we’re going to need during the year, either if he makes the club now or he goes to (triple-A) Buffalo,” said Montoyo. “We’re going to need him and we’re going to need him to be good. Hopefully he does what he did today. That’s a good sign.” … The Blue Jays managed just one hit – a Teoscar Hernandez single – and two walks against the Yankees. Hernandez also stole second but was stranded there. … James Paxton of Ladner, B.C., acquired by the Yankees from Seattle over the winter, made his debut. He threw two no-hit innings with two walks and two strikeouts. “Good to get the first one out of the way,” he said. “Obviously I don’t want to walk people. I felt like I was a little jumpy in the first inning, second inning calmed down, kind of felt my body a little better and got that timing going. It was a good place to start, a good place to build off.”