<
>

First Pitch: The Bronx is Pronk's

4/18/2013

Nobody was all that excited when the Yankees signed Travis Hafner to replace Raul Ibanez as their lefthanded DH this winter.

And with good reason. Although he had hit as many as 42 home runs in a season, that was back in 2006. And over the past five seasons, his numbers had steadily plummeted: five home runs in 2008, 16 in 2009, 13 in 2010 and 2011, and 12 last year, when he batted just .228. He was injury-riddled, and so inept in the field that the Yankees told him to bring nothing to camp but batting gloves. At age 35, he seemed the epitome of washed-up.

And the way he looked in the spring only reinforced the widespread belief that Pronk in the Bronx was destined to be a colossal failure.

But then Hafner hit the Yankees' first home run of the season, in the second game of the year, and had a huge one in his first at-bat before his hometown fans in Cleveland 10 days ago. They loved him when he came to bat that night, and hated him by the time he finished rounding the bases, having staked the Yankees to a 3-0 first-inning lead.

Then came Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, when in the eighth inning of a game the Yanks had no business still being in, Hafner came out of the dugout as a pinch-hitter and returned to it as a hero, having crushed the first pitch he saw into the right-field seats for the game-winner in a rousing 4-3 victory.

"It's great," Hafner said. "I'm having a lot of fun here and have been swinging the bat pretty well. I'm having a great time."

Through 13 games, Hafner is batting .342 with four home runs (tied for the club lead with Robinson Cano) and eight RBIs. His OPS is an astounding 1.144.

Asked if he was impressed by Hafner's feat Wednesday, CC Sabathia -- the direct beneficiary of the blast -- said, "No. I’ve seen him when he’s locked in, so I expect him to do a lot more than what he’s done so far."

That drew a laugh from Hafner, a low-key presence who blends in well inside the buttoned-up Yankees clubhouse. "Well, that's good to know, that CC wants more," he said. "I think it's always important to get off to a good start. I think it helps relax you a little bit. Most importantly, you want to contribute and help the team win."

Sabathia, who numbers Pronk as a friend after having been his teammate for six years in Cleveland, admitted he was "excited" to see Hafner coming to the plate in the eighth inning of a tie game. "In this ballpark, with his power, all it takes is the right pitch and he got that today," Sabathia said.

Something tells me we're going to see that happen plenty more times this season.

QUESTION: How do you feel now about the Yankees' decision to sign Hafner? (It's OK to change your mind. I did.)

UP NOW: My column on the second act of Sabathia's career, as well as the Rapid Reaction from Wednesday's 4-3 victory.

ON DECK: The series finale against the Diamondbacks, before the Yankees leave on a six-game road trip to Toronto and Tampa. Phil Hughes (0-2, 10.29), coming off a poor outing against the Orioles on Saturday, makes the start against lefty Patrick Corbin (2-0, 1.50), first pitch at 7:05 p.m. The incomparable Andrew Marchand will be there when the clubhouse opens at 3:20 and will post the lineup shortly thereafter. As always, thanks for reading.