NEW YORK — Slade Heathcott spotted his name in a Major League lineup for the first time on Friday, drawing the start in center field as the Yankees opened a three-game series with the Rangers.
Heathcott made his big league debut on Wednesday as a pinch-runner, having been summoned from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to replace the injured Jacoby Ellsbury on the active roster.
“We’re looking for quality at-bats and to play defense, is what we’re looking for from him,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “He’s getting an opportunity to start tonight and I’m kind of excited for him.”
The Yankees’ first-round selection (29th overall) in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, the 24-year-old Heathcott was batting .285 (43-for-151) with 16 runs, four doubles, two triples, a homer and 17 RBIs in 37 games for the RailRiders, appearing at all three outfield positions.
“I started off kind of decent, got going pretty well,” Heathcott said. “Lately I kind of cooled off a little bit, but [it was] more of just realizing I need to get back to the basics. Keep it to that and not try to do too much, don’t try to force things and try to make things happen. Just let the game come to me.”
As Heathcott said earlier this week, his road to the big leagues has been anything but uneventful. His progress was stalled by two surgeries on his right knee, two procedures on his left shoulder as well as a stint in rehab for alcohol abuse.
Despite being removed from the 40-man roster this past winter, Heathcott impressed the Yanks this spring, hitting .333 (11-for-33) as a non-roster invitee, and Girardi said that he sensed increased maturity in Heathcott’s game.
“This spring, he was healthy,” Girardi said. “I had a talk with him about how the most important thing was to stay healthy and to get at-bats. Over the period we’ve had him, he has been hurt about half the time and has not been able to show what kind of talent he has on a consistent basis. The important thing is, he has been healthy and he has played well.”
WASHINGTON — Jacoby Ellsbury has been a catalyst atop the Yankees’ lineup all season, but they will continue without his services for at least two weeks after the outfielder sustained a right knee sprain in Tuesday’s 8-6, 10-inning loss to the Nationals on Tuesday.
Ellsbury left the game in the fourth inning after tweaking the knee swinging at a changeup from the Nats’ Gio Gonzalez. Ellsbury worked a walk but appeared to favor the knee while running the bases, and did not return to play defense in the bottom half of the inning.
“It’s not what you want,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “If we are going to lose him for some time, somebody’s got to step up. That’s the bottom line. It’s part of the game.”
Ellsbury left Nationals Park before the end of the game to have an MRI performed. The Yankees plan to select outfielder Slade Heathcott to the 40-man roster and have him take Ellsbury’s spot on the active roster.
Heathcott, 24, was batting .280 (42-for-150) with one home run and 17 RBIs in 36 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after putting together a strong spring in big league camp.
The 31-year-old Ellsbury is hitting .324 (48-for-148) with one homer, six RBIs and 14 stolen bases in 37 games.
“Jacoby is our leadoff guy, gets on base and kind of gets things started,” Yankees catcher Brian McCann said. “We’re hoping for the best. I’m not sure what the news is, but we’re hoping for the best.”
Girardi said that he was not sure if he would move Brett Gardner from left field to center field in the event that Ellsbury misses an extended period of time.
“I haven’t really thought about it,” Girardi said. “You’ve got to see what it is. It’s possible that we might do that. I think you kind of wait to see what it is before you make a whole lot of changes.”
The fun of the Yankees’ so-called “Stache Squad” evaporated somewhere on the charter flight between Kansas City and Washington, with five losses in six games suggesting that someone should break out the razors.
Most of the Yankees were clean-shaven as they reported to Nationals Park on Tuesday, with Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Stephen Drew and Dellin Betances among those saying goodbye to their once-lucky soup-strainers.
“It wasn’t going to last forever,” Gardner said. “Just a couple of guys talked about, maybe it was time. Maybe we’ll start another one back at some point.”
Gardner was the ringleader of the Yanks’ mustache craze, which found its roots in a three-game sweep of the Rays at Tropicana Field from April 17-19.
Since 1973, the Yankees have had a well-known facial hair policy that only permits hair above the lip. Pushing it to the limit, the Yankees won 18 of their next 24 games, grabbing possession of first place in the American League East.
“We had fun with it while it lasted,” Teixeira said.
There could be a few more players grabbing the after-shave. Andrew Miller, Jacoby Ellsbury and Masahiro Tanaka were among those clinging to the mustaches on Tuesday afternoon, but the clock seemed to be nearing midnight for those too.
“I’m not going to be the only one,” Miller said.
Tanaka will begin his Minor League rehabilitation assignment with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Thursday, an outing in which the Yankees right-hander is expected to throw three innings or 45 pitches.
Tanaka threw 29 pitches in a bullpen session on Monday at Nationals Park and reported no issues. He has been on the disabled list since April 29 with right wrist tendinitis and a right forearm strain, and will face Durham at 6:35 p.m. ET.
“Very much looking forward to it,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “Good progress. Should be OK.”
Because Tanaka is throwing only 45 pitches on Thursday, it appears likely that he will need more than one rehab start. Girardi has said the Yankees would like Tanaka to be ready to throw at least 90 pitches in a big league game, and pitchers typically add about 15 pitches per outing.
“Let’s just go a start at a time,” Girardi said. “We know that we have to build him back up some. He has not been out that long, so he’ll go three and 45 and then we’ll decide what’s next.”
Should there be an opportunity for Chasen Shreve to face Bryce Harper this week, you might see a couple of smiles exchanged. That would be a rare reaction for the Nationals slugger to get from an opposing pitcher, considering his recent offensive tear.
The Yankees left-hander said that he has known Harper back to their high school years, when Harper was already smearing on eye black and wowing scouts, then earning national attention as he landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16.
“The first time I met him, it was in a scout tournament and we were playing on the same team,” Shreve said. “He came from football practice to one of our practices. He had the cutoff sleeves and the big face paint. I met him, he was a really nice guy. I thought he was more of a football player than a baseball player. When he played, he was just unreal. He played hard; he’s always played hard.”
Shreve and Harper teamed as a battery for one season with the College of Southern Nevada — “He was a good catcher; great arm,” Shreve said — and watching from afar, Shreve said that he believes Harper has been able to handle the hype that surrounded him from a young age.
“Everything you see bad about him just gets magnified that much more,” Shreve said. “I remember we were playing at CSN and they kept picking over (to first base) and just smacking the crap out of his helmet, just hitting him in the helmet like three times in a row.
“Then he ended up hitting a home run and points in their dugout, and it got blown up that he did it for no reason. It always happened like that. Everything got magnified, no matter what he did. I think he has handled it well. You can’t be perfect.”
Teixeira was in the lineup after being hit on the right big toe by a pitch Sunday. He joked, “I might have the red light a little more than usual at first base.”
Alex Rodriguez is on the bench for the first of two games against the Nats, which will be played with National League rules. Girardi said that he’d like to get A-Rod at least one at-bat per game, but he isn’t strongly considering playing him in the field.
“I’m sure he’d much rather be in there than having all this time off, but he understands the situation,” Girardi said. “It is what it is. We’ll go day by day. That’s what happens when you become a DH. It becomes harder to get in games when you’re in a National League park.”
This might have been tough to believe just a few weeks ago, but Girardi said he had a difficult time taking Carlos Beltran out of the lineup to play Chris Young against left-hander Gio Gonzalez.
“He’s been playing well and he’s been swinging well,” Girardi said. “You get in a situation where you’re coming off an off day, your two guys at the top have done a great job against left-handers, Chris Young has done a great job against left-handers. But Carlos has been playing extremely well. In this long run, these two days might not hurt him, but it was hard to take him out today.”
Chase Whitley had Tommy John surgery today in New York. Dr. Chris Ahmad performed the surgery, with an expected recovery time of 12 to 18 months.
“It all went well,” Girardi said. “The way I understood it, there were only a few fibers left, so maybe he had a couple pitches left and it would have been completely gone. It was the right choice on his part.”
ST. PETERSBURG — The Yankees deemed Masahiro Tanaka’s return to the mound to be a success, as the right-hander threw 30 pitches and used his full repertoire in the Tropicana Field bullpen prior to Tuesday’s game against the Rays.
The pitches were Tanaka’s first off a hill since he was placed on the disabled list April 29 with a strained right forearm and tendinitis in his right wrist.
“It felt good, coming out really good from my hand,” Tanaka said through an interpreter. “Happy about it.”
“He looked fine. It was a good progression,” pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. “He threw all his pitches, had no problems. We’ll see how he is tomorrow.”
Tanaka will have at least one more side session before being cleared for rehab starts, and manager Joe Girardi said that they will wait to see how he feels Wednesday. General manager Brian Cashman has said that Tanaka could be making big league starts in early June, but Tanaka is unsure of his time frame.
“I’ve got to see how I do in my first rehab start,” Tanaka said. “I’ll probably get a feel for where I’m at once I throw that first start. Obviously I have to see how the coaches, manager, see how I do. It kind of all depends on that.”
Also on Tuesday, right-hander Ivan Nova threw 33 pitches, broken into three innings, during an Extended Spring outing in Tampa, Fla. with manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild in attendance. Nova is recovering from Tommy John surgery conducted last April and is expected back this summer.
“He got through the three innings fine,” Rothschild said. “The velocity was good. The location was good, which is unusual for a guy coming back at this point. He spun the ball well; some good curveballs. It’s just building up the stamina now and making sure you get through all the paces. We’re not going to rush it.”
Left-hander Chris Capuano is scheduled to throw 85 to 90 pitches Tuesday for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at Norfolk and could be close to big league ready.
“He should be, depending on functionality,” Rothschild said. “He’s got to be ready to get people out here and have command of the pitches that you need to get by here.”
Girardi said it is still too early to think about how Capuano, Nova and Tanaka will rejoin the rotation.
“I don’t think you really worry too much about it until you have to make a decision about what you’re going to do because other things can creep up,” Girardi said. “As I’ve said before, sometimes you can waste a lot of energy doing that.”
The Yankees and the Orioles will play the second game of a four-game series tonight at Yankee Stadium, with right-hander Adam Warren (2-1, 4.78) making the start for New York and right-hander Miguel Gonzalez (3-1, 2.59) going for Baltimore.
The Yankees have won 15 of their last 20 games, and with a victory tonight would improve to 19-11. That would mark their best 30-game start to a season since 2010, when they opened the year 21-9.
Here are the early notes from the Yankees clubhouse:
Masahiro Tanaka threw from distances of 60 and 90 feet this afternoon, and everything is said to have gone well. This was his second straight day of tossing, and Tanaka will have a scheduled day off tomorrow before picking a ball up again on Sunday.
“Definitely going in the right direction,” Tanaka said through an interpreter.
Stephen Drew got the night off after going 1-for-3 with a double in last night’s 4-3 victory, yielding to Jose Pirela, and Joe Girardi said that it was a scheduled day off for the slumping Drew. Girardi indicated that Pirela — who apparently is nicknamed “Petey” in Girardi-ese — will play second base tomorrow against left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, so that might be an opportunity to rest Didi Gregorius.
Girardi on the upcoming potential Alex Rodriguez milestone of 3,000 hits (he’s 38 shy):
“Well, obviously it’s a ton of hits and you have to have a lot of longevity to come up with 3,000 hits. This is going to be debated for years to come, I’m sure. My job as a manager is to get the most out of my players. My job is not to decide if something is a milestone, an accomplishment. I mean, that’s for baseball people and historians to do. My hope is he gets it fairly quickly, and those hits keep coming and the home runs keep coming and he’s still productive.”
By the way, how good has this start of the season been? If he keeps up this pace, A-Rod would finish the year with 39 homers and 101 RBIs. Now that would be a story.
Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer will throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to tonight’s game.