The longer Greg Bird talked, the more he smiled.
At one point, the Yankees’ first baseman seemed downright giddy when reminded he was nine innings away from a World Series berth.
His enthusiasm is understandable, after all he went through this season, missing nearly four months with a right ankle injury that refused to heal and eventually required surgery. And that’s on top of his lost 2016 season due to shoulder surgery. He’s never enjoyed himself more on a baseball field following all the setbacks.
“I appreciate playing,” he said after the Yankees took a 3-2 series lead over the Astros in the ALCS with a dominant 5-0 victory at the Stadium on Wednesday. “I don’t take it for granted any day. I like coming out and playing, and I like coming out with these guys and playing.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s focused fun.”
It was Bird who finally broke the ice against Yankees tormentor Dallas Keuchel, ending their postseason drought at 14²/₃ innings against the left-hander with a run-scoring single in the second.
Bird was in the lineup in the 2015 wild-card game when Keuchel eliminated the Yankees with six shutout innings. He threw seven more shutout frames in Game 1 of this series. But after a Starlin Castro two-out double in the second Wednesday, Bird jumped on a 2-0 fastball, plating Castro.
“You got to stay disciplined, but you got to be aggressive,” Bird said, referring to facing Keuchel. “It kind of contradicts each other. You got to get him on the plate and when you do, you got to make it hurt. That was kind of my plan going in.”
It opened the Keuchel floodgates, the first of four runs the Yankees scored against the dynamite southpaw over 4 ²/₃ innings. Aaron Judge added a run-scoring double in the third, while Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius followed with run-scoring singles in the fifth, chasing Keuchel.
It all started with the 24-year-old Bird, proving it was in fact possible for the Yankees to score against the Astros’ co-ace.
“That’s the biggest thing, getting that first run,” Judge said. “Someone like that, Cy Young winner, you got to get him early when you can, because if he gets in a groove like he usually does, he’s unhittable.”
For large stretches of the season, it seemed unlikely Bird would have a role on the Yankees. He never could get healthy, out from May 1 through Aug. 26, limited to 48 regular-season games in which he hit just .190. But Bird got enough at-bats under his belt in September to become a postseason force.
He’s hitting .308 with a 1.165 OPS in 11 postseason games. He’s reached base safely in all but one contest, scored five runs, driven in six, and drawn 11 walks.
“I’m not impressed — that’s Greg Bird,” Judge said. “That’s what I expect out of him. That’s what he’s shown me through the minor leagues, the short time he’s been up here. He’s a fantastic hitter, probably our best hitter, and he’s proving it right now in the postseason.”