NEW YORK — Sitting shirtless in front of his locker in the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, his right ring finger wrapped from PIP joint to fingertip in heavy white tape, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. scrolled stone-faced through his phone.
He’d just returned on a golf cart from the medical room at the opposite end of ballpark, where a doctor used two stitches to close the gash opened on Guerrero’s finger hours earlier by Aaron Hicks’ left cleat. On the televisions above him, YES Network’s post-game show began airing highlights of the Toronto Blue Jays' 6-4 triumph over the New York Yankees on Wednesday, a gripping, back-and-forth contest you might have heard Guerrero had some impact on. A momentous performance from a singular, innate talent whose burgeoning career is somehow still just getting started. Maybe his finest yet.
"Just add that one to my list," Guerrero said. "Because it's one of them."
Whack. Guerrero’s first homer of the night, off the second pitch he’d seen from Yankees starter Gerrit Cole — a hung slider — was parked over the wall in dead centre at 109 mph. Guerrero looked up from his phone. Still stoic, but now paying attention.
Crunch. Guerrero’s finger was trampled by Hicks, as the first baseman used his bare hand for balance while picking a ball in the dirt. Quick cut to Guerrero, his pant pocket smeared red, walking calmly back to the Blue Jays dugout in search of assistance, blood rapidly leaking from an open wound.
“He was bleeding a lot,” said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. “It was like I was in that Rocky movie: ‘Cut me, Mick! Cut me!’”
Through all the commotion, as Blue Jays trainers Jose Ministral and Voon Chong worked furiously to stop the blood flow and bandage the area, Guerrero kept repeating the same thing over and over. I’m not coming out of this game, Charlie. I’m not coming out of this game.
“I don’t want you to come out of the game!” Montoyo exclaimed afterwards while recalling the moment and laughing. “You’ve got to give him a lot of credit. So many people would have come out, you know?
“I saw a lot of blood. But I was waiting to let the trainers work, see what they can do, if they can stop the bleeding. And they did. So, they do deserve a lot of credit. We never really talk about trainers. But besides Vladdy, the trainers were the MVP’s today.”
Crack. A second shot off Cole aired on that clubhouse TV, this one an absurd, can't-teach-that piece of hitting in which Guerrero pulled his hands in to get a 98-mph fastball running a good six inches off the plate beneath his belt, putting a dent in the back wall of the left field bullpen.
Guerrero will tell you his plan against Cole Wednesday was to get a good pitch to hit. The first one he homered on was. But that second one wasn’t. Not even in the slightest. Normal hitters can’t get to that pitch, let alone take it for that ride. Even really good hitters can’t. Run it back a thousand times and Cole probably doesn’t throw it any differently. It’s just a special ability you either have or you don’t. And Guerrero might be the only guy in the game who has it.
“I was just trying to react,” Guerrero said. “I mean, when you're up there, you're not really paying attention to a location, especially at that velo. All I did was just see the pitch and react.”
Montoyo used to hit a bit himself. Not like Vladdy. No one hits like Vladdy. But he did have nearly 900 knocks over his minor-league career. He figures he might’ve decapitated a fan trying to get his bat on that thing.
“Anybody that knows baseball and saw what he did tonight knows that’s just impressive. It was an inside fastball at 98 from one of the best pitchers in baseball,” Montoyo said. “And he got to it. Like, that’s not easy to do. I would’ve killed somebody if I hit it that way. If I even got to it.”
That pitch from Cole took less than four-tenths of a second to get to the plate from his hand, arriving 2.78 feet off the ground. It was not a strike. Since 2010, right-handed MLB hitters have collectively seen 2,307 fastballs at 98-mph or harder that ended up middle-in and off the plate, like the one Cole threw Guerrero. Not a single one had been hit for a home run until Wednesday. Not a single one.
"That's the type of player he is. Man, he can take over a game," said Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge. "Especially with Cole's fastball — that's tough. Someone like Vlad, if he's looking for a pitch, he usually doesn't miss. He was probably sitting on something in there and got what he was looking for. But against a guy who can run it up to 99, 100 miles per hour? That's tough to square up even if you're sitting on it."
Slice. Still watching the post-game highlights expressionless from his locker, Guerrero saw himself earning a third hit off Cole in the sixth — a double — after falling behind, 0-2, cutting down his swing, and flicking another 98-mph heater into the opposite field corner. Even Cole — one of the best pitchers on the planet, perhaps you’ve heard — had to tip his cap after that one. Guerrero didn’t see the gesture at the time. Someone showed it to him on their phone after the game. He thought it was pretty neat. Cole was less pleased.
“I mean, did you see the night?” Cole said, exasperated. “If you had a cap, you’d tip it, too. And it got better after that. My goodness.”
Pop. It did get better after that. A third homer off Guerrero’s barrel, this time in the eighth inning off Jonathan Loaisiga, an utterly nasty right-handed reliever who gave up only three homers over 70.2 innings in 2021. Off a 95-mph sinker middle-in, too — Loaisiga’s bread and butter pitch to right-handed hitters.
Some facts. Loaisiga’s thrown 363 sinkers on the inner-half of the plate or beyond to right-handed hitters over his five-season career. Only one of them — to Trea Turner in 2020 — had ever been hit out of the park before Wednesday night. Only four others had even been hit for extra-bases. These things Guerrero does, they aren’t normal.
“When he’s got that swing going, it’s just…” began Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo, before trailing off. “He’s just better than everyone else. It doesn’t matter who’s on the mound, what pitches are thrown. He put those swings on really good pitches.”
Wait — back to Guerrero at his locker. He stopped watching sometime around Cole’s cap tip, returning his gaze to his phone and whoever you text when you’re the best hitter alive and you just spent your night setting the baseball world on fire.
Above him, the highlights came to an end. A box score read Blue Jays 6, Yankees 4. Guerrero’s line was highlighted: 4-for-4 with three homers, a double, three runs, four RBIs. And then a clip from Yankees manager Aaron Boone’s postgame presser quickly replaced it on the screen.
“Just a great hitter," Boone said. "It was just otherworldly hitting.”
There’s no arguing with that. What Guerrero did in the Bronx on Wednesday was astonishing, riveting, all consuming. It didn’t matter who you were cheering for, which side you were on. Didn’t matter if your answer to those questions was neither. Guerrero’s night was just unfathomably compelling theatre from one moment to the next.
The homers, the presence, the determination to keep going with a hole in his hand. The moments, the celebrations, the deliberate jogs around the bases. The final out of the night that he snared in his big first baseman’s mitt, a 108-mph Josh Donaldson liner that seemed magnetized to him only a moment after Montoyo and Blue Jays infield coach Luis Rivera had called from the bench for Guerrero to reposition himself a little to his right.
What a night; what a player; what incredible scenes. And yet, you wouldn’t have known what had just happened seeing him shirtless in front of his locker about an hour after he made that final out, right ring finger taped tight, amber-tipped dreadlocks spilling from the back of his head, scrolling stoically through his phone.
The best hitter on the planet, a singular, innate talent, having a quiet moment after a long day’s work. A brief instant to sit with himself, to reflect, to send a message to someone important. Before he gathers his things and goes back to his Manhattan hotel where, sometime tomorrow, he’ll get up to do it all over again.