"He has a great arm," said Houk last week, spitting a contemplative wad of Red Man on the dugout steps. "He has real good hands and he knows what to do with the ball when he gets it. He's played third most of his life, and they play the year round down there, so he has the experience."
Sanchez is positively fearless in the pursuit of the treacherous shots a third baseman must necessarily confront. In the Detroit series alone he was struck on the throat, chest and left arm by nasty hoppers. His torso was a mass of welts and abrasions.
"I've never seen anyone field so many bad hops," said Houk in wonderment. "He's inspiring," said Swoboda, who saw good hops and bad during his days as a Met. "Third base is tough. That man has guts."
To which Sanchez would reply, "Gracias." He speaks no English beyond such rudimentary expressions as "base heet" and "I got eet!" This does raise a communication problem. Gardner, for example, sought last week both to thank Sanchez for a fine stop of a bad hop and to commiserate with him for the lump on the chest he received for his trouble. Gardner found himself at a loss for words. "Hang in there," the pitcher said lamely, patting Sanchez on the back. "I couldn't have said much more. I'm not even sure he understood what I said this time."
Sanchez' courageous play at third may be some inspiration for the "dee-fense" chants. In truth, the Yankee dee-fense does have panache—all those balls plunking into Sanchez' perforated torso; Roy White, a lonely figure in the vast terrain of left field, searching, often vainly, for fly balls lost against the tricky backdrop; and Horace Clarke at second base. One Clarke play last week may, in fact, typify the Yankee dee-fensive style.
In the eighth inning of the final game with the Tigers, there were two outs and runners at first and second, with the Yankees ahead 1-0, when Detroit's Aurelio Rodriguez hit a three-two pitch directly at Yankee Shortstop Gene Michael. Michael, forgetting perhaps that the runners were going with the pitch, flipped the ball to a startled Clarke, who was sauntering slowly toward second under the mistaken impression Michael would throw to first. But Clarke reacted instinctively. Recognizing that there was no play at second base, he simply pivoted and fired hard to first, as if completing a double play. The ball arrived a half-step before Rodriguez, saving a run and possibly a loss.
"Something like that doesn't happen too often," Clarke acknowledged later. Not even with the Yankees.
As it is, the dee-fense may be more interesting than the offense, which is hardly Ruthian. When White lofted a Mickey Lolich pitch into the left-field seats in the opener with Detroit, it was just the third home run to left field the Yankees have hit all season. Only Murcer, with 19 home runs, and Ron Blomberg, with 10, may be considered power threats, and Blomberg plays only against right-hand pitching. The Yankees have no .300 hitter.
What then, besides Lyle and divine providence, is keeping them in the race? Pitching, for instance. In Mel Stottlemyre, Peterson, Mike Kekich and Kline, the Yankees have four dependable starters. Kline, in fact, is enjoying an exceptional year. He has won 13 and lost four, and his earned run average of 1.69 leads major league starting pitchers.
The Yankees also have considerable depth. Houk can platoon the left-hand-hitting Blomberg and the right-hand-hitting Felipe Alou at first base and lefty John Callison and righty Swoboda in right field with no appreciable loss of effectiveness. And in Hal Lanier, Jerry Kenney and Bernie Allen he has three versatile and experienced utility infielders.