Greg Bird wants to play. Anyone (Hello, Mr. Unnamed Yankees Source) who believes otherwise should watch a replay of Bird's reaction after he blasted a mammoth home run which propelled the Yankees to a 1-0 victory in Game 3 of the ALDS.
Bird has been an offensive catalyst in the division series, hitting .300 with a .462 OBP and .900 SLG with two home runs and three RBI. There is little doubt Bird is a key cog in the Yankees' offensive machine, and it was something many saw coming two years ago.
When Bird came onto the scene in 2015 as an injury replacement for Mark Teixeira, it was evident that he had a smooth swing and was going to be the future full-time first baseman. Bird then displayed why his swing was built for baseball, not just Yankee Stadium, as he pounded nine doubles and 11 home runs, while driving in 31 runs in 178 plate appearances.
However, Bird has suffered through some tough luck injuries, missing the entirety of the 2016 season due to a shoulder injury and then a majority of this season after fouling a ball off his ankle that eventually required surgery. Bird worked hard to get himself back on the field in August, when even level-headed Yankees staff were uncertain he could physically do so.
Bird was confident he could get back to help the Yankees down the stretch and hoped it would lead to a postseason appearance for the club.
"I bet on [coming back]," Bird said after Sunday night's game. "To be honest with you, I bet on it. I bet on myself."
"What a wild ride it has been," he added. "I knew we had a good team and we'd be [in playoffs] and I was hoping I could be a part of it."
Feeling healthy and getting back on the field was one thing, but being able to contribute was another. Some credit has to be given to Yankees skipper Joe Girardi for not only providing Bird at-bats upon his return, but then shifting completely to Bird down the stretch, understanding how much of an impact the left-handed hitter can have on a game.
Girardi did not need to switch gears to the 24-year-old, as he was receiving high-level production from Chase Headley at first base. That was likely a difficult choice for Girardi, whose reputation for preferring veterans over youth precedes him. Bird's performance didn't allow for a choice and he wanted desperately to be a part of the equation down the stretch.
"It was hard, just watching from afar is never fun," Bird said. "You want to be in the mix and be there with your guys, whether they are doing great things or they are struggling."
In 29 games (24 starts) after his return August 26, Bird slashed .253/.316/.575 with eight homers and 25 RBI in 98 plate appearances. He regained the confidence of his manager and proved he was completely healthy. Bird's emergence also allowed the Yankees to shift Headley into a depleted designated hitter spot, and it goes without saying that Bird lengthened the lineup.
Bird's late-season production also verified to Girardi that he was the team's first baseman. There would not be any substitutions where Bird was concerned and he would not be removed for a pinch hitter regardless of the pitcher on the hill.
That includes one of the best left-handed relievers in the game, Andrew Miller. Bird had seen Miller twice in the series without much success (0-2 with a strikeout), but sometimes it's those first plate appearances that help turn the tide. Bird got a pitch he could drive and one that no ballpark could hold, let alone Yankee Stadium.
Bird's home run was the exclamation point to putting his injuries behind him and it was evident that he felt redeemed as he circled the bases before entering the dugout, hyped as he pounded forearms and celebrated with his teammates. As much as Bird has backed self-confidence with production since his return, he's just as excited that he and his teammates will play another day.
"Plain and simple, I'm not ready to be done playing and I don't think the rest of the team is," he said. "Just very happy with that and know it gives us a chance, really."
The Yankees will play another elimination game Monday night. Bird playing in October wasn't a certainty this summer, but the Game 4 lineup cannot be written without him right in the middle of it.