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Yankees’ gift from nowhere a big reason for their strong start

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It is forgotten to time that the Yankees did not pursue Orlando Hernandez with the fervor that they had his half-brother, Livan, in 1996. And that Hideki Irabu was greeted with way more fanfare in 1997 than El Duque would be a year later. 

After all, Hernandez had been banned from Cuban baseball because authorities were worried he would defect like Livan. Thus, El Duque had not pitched for more than a year when the Yankees signed him in March 1998 to a four-year, $6.6 million contract. 

It is why, when he finally did arrive two months into what already was feeling like a magical season, Hernandez became kind of a gift out of nowhere. He was poised in a way that Irabu was not. He possessed a bevy of pitches and arm angles. He helped make an exceptional team historic. 

Yankees great Orlando Hernandez throws a ceremonial first pitch before the Yankees’ 6-1 win over the White Sox. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

He threw out the first pitch Saturday and then watched as another gift out of nowhere named Luis Gil broke his Yankee rookie strikeout record with 14, topping the 13 that Hernandez produced on Aug. 13, 1998. It all felt magical in a season beginning to have that pinstriped tinge. And when I saw El Duque outside the Yankee clubhouse after they had won their sixth straight, 6-1 over the White Sox, he unsolicitedly offered: “Wow, Luis Gil, he’s special.” 

Indeed. There are many reasons why the Yankees are an AL-best 32-15. They are a machine performing at a high level in every area. 

On Saturday, for example, there seemed to be no discernible difference between where Yankees batting practice ended and White Sox starter Brad Keller began. He faced 21 batters in four innings and 10 smashed the ball 100 mph or harder. Three were by Juan Soto, who had two of the Yankees’ four homers and an RBI single. Oh, by the way, Soto is four months younger than Gil. Two came via Giancarlo Stanton, whose revival tour produced a double and a homer and, thus, a fourth straight two-hit game. Nick Burdi and Dennis Santana combined to retire nine of 10 batters to drive the second-best pen ERA down to 2.54. 

But let’s not forget how the Yankees and every one of their fans felt on March 16 when it was announced that Gerrit Cole was being shut down with elbow pain. Or even after the “good news” that it was just nerve irritation, but that the ace would miss a minimum of two months and likely more. Cole was viewed as the club’s most indispensable player, such was the concern about the health and/or temperament of the other rotation members. 

That group, though, has been brilliant. Gil, Nestor Cortes, Carlos Rodon, Clarke Schmidt and Marcus Stroman comprise the lone rotation in the majors that has five players qualified for the ERA title — and each member’s ERA-plus is 110 or better. The rotation’s 3.00 ERA is third-best in the majors. 

But here is the thing — Gil is the gift from nowhere. He did not pitch last season after Tommy John surgery. He left the Yankees and vowed to return a better version, notably improving his strength. He was part of the first Yankee cutdown in spring on March 3. But he redoubled his efforts to prove he belonged. Scouts gushed with each spring outing. Still, the bar was low to replace Cole. Except he has basically been Cole. In winning the Cy Young last year, Cole had a 2.63 ERA. Gil is at 2.39. He is second in the majors in batting average against (.154) and fifth in strikeouts per nine innings (11.39). 

Luis Gil broke his Yankee rookie strikeout record with 14 strikeouts. AP

And if there is one quality he seems to share with Hernandez, it is an unflappable nature. 

Andrew Benintendi hit an excuse-me, check-swing RBI double with two outs in the first and then Paul DeJong walked to load the bases. Pitching coach Matt Blake came out to remind Gil to stay in his mechanics. Jose Trevino reasserted that Gil was throwing the ball great. Anthony Rizzo served as hype man to pump up the righty. 

The Twins had traded Gil as a 19-year-old in March 2018 for spare outfielder Jake Cave. Robert Sabo for NY Post

The Twins had traded Gil as a 19-year-old in March 2018 for spare outfielder Jake Cave because they believed he was a two-pitch pitcher (fastball/slider) with control problems or the profile of a reliever. But part of Gil’s determination to improve has been to add a high-end changeup and the pitch whisperer, Trevino, called for it four straight times against Korey Lee before Gil froze the White Sox catcher with 97 mph to escape the bases-loaded conundrum. 

Want signs of not flustering? That dropped opponents to 2-for-27 this year against Gil with runners in scoring position. Want signs of continuing growth? After the first inning, Gil had just one more three-ball count and no walks. He threw a first-pitch strike to 12 of 18 hitters between the second and sixth innings and got ahead 0-2 or 1-2 on 10, plus struck out seven straight from the fourth to sixth innings. 

That helped the Yankees hold an opponent to one run or fewer for a fifth straight game — tied for the longest by the team since six in a row from Sept. 24-30, 1978, when the Yankees were finishing off one of the greatest comebacks ever. This club is playing from in front, leading the AL East. There are many reasons why. 

None bigger than the gift from nowhere named Luis Gil.

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