NEW YORK — Jacoby Ellsbury just took off.
Ignoring all danger, Ellsbury stole home April 22. His daring dash seemed to startle most everyone at Yankee Stadium and helped New York rush past the Tampa Bay Rays 6-3, ending a three-game skid.
“I was a little shocked,” Manager Joe Girardi said. “I’m still stunned by what happened,” Yankees catcher Brian McCann said.
Ellsbury wasn’t worried. “It’s a risk I was willing to take,” he said, adding, “That’s the ultimate adrenaline rush for a basestealer.”
Ellsbury became the first Yankees player to pull off a straight steal of home since Derek Jeter since 2001. Ellsbury’s timing in the fifth inning was really surprising: He bolted with two outs on a full-count pitch to Brett Gardner, who let it go high for ball four.
Gardner stood in the left-handed batter’s box as Ellsbury hurtled toward him. Had Gardner swung, who knows what might’ve happened — a foul ball could have nailed the defenseless Ellsbury from extremely close range.
“He loses a head,” McCann said. Or, perhaps, a big backswing by Gardner hits him in the face.
Gardner saw the play developing and in a split-second had his own plan. If the pitch was a strike, “I probably take a short, abbreviated swing and try to hit a chopper,” he said.
With the Yankees trailing 3-2, the infield playing back and the count full, the speedy Ellsbury started wandering down the line. When the left-handed Matt Moore (1-1) went into a full windup, Ellsbury broke for the plate.
“I knew if I took off, I’d make it,” he said.
Gardner watched the fastball whiz past as Ellsbury made a headfirst dive, his right hand barely reaching the plate under catcher Curt Casali’s tag. The crowd cheered even louder when a replay was shown after the inning ended.
“I was trying to do anything to stop the play, but I guess I can’t call time in the middle of a steal of home attempt,” Casali said.
“Gardner can see him the whole way and I honestly didn’t see him until he was halfway. It was an aggressive play,” he said. “Very, very odd. Unexpected.”
Said Moore: “I saw him coming.”
“I’m not sure if I actually saw it or felt it. I can hear different things: ‘Step off, hurry up.’ And it was sometime right about when my hands are over my head that I tried to shorten the whole thing up and just get it there,” he said. “If it was just a foot lower, Curt doesn’t have to reach as high and go back down.”
The Yankees had seen this before from Ellsbury — in 2009 with Boston, he pulled off a straight steal of home against Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte. “That kept me up for a few nights,” Girardi said. “It’s good to be on this side.”
Chris Young was the previous Yankees player to swipe home, as part of a double steal in 2014.
Ellsbury singled with two outs in the fifth and Didi Gregorius followed with a single off Moore. A balk moved the runners to second and third while Gardner was batting, setting up the rare sequence.
Ellsbury, who didn’t start the game, added a two-run double in eighth. McCann hit an early two-run homer, then sliced a tie-breaking single in the sixth.
Ivan Nova (1-0) won in relief of CC Sabathia. Dellin Betances struck all three batters in the eighth and Andrew Miller closed for his fourth save as a light sprinkle fell.
Logan Forsythe doubled twice, drove in two runs and scored for the Rays. New York had managed only 18 runs while losing seven of its past eight.
(BEN WALKER, AP Baseball Writer)