HOUSTON — Electricity filled the air at the New York Yankees’ player development complex in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. Players were buzzing. The staff was all smiles. The coronavirus pandemic had canceled the entire 2020 minor-league season, but now it was November, and the Yankees were able to host workouts for some of their more highly regarded prospects. After months of remote training and seeing each other only through iPhone screens, they were all together, playing the game they loved.
On one of the back fields, players were doing a drill to help them understand situational hitting. Runner on second base and nobody out? Get a hit. Runners on first and third with one out? Hit a fly ball to the outfield. The final task was to imagine themselves with the bases loaded, one out, and in the bottom of the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium.
But Trevor Amicone, one of the team’s minor-league hitting coaches, thought something was a little off about top prospect Jasson Domínguez. He thought Domínguez was holding back.
“I think you’re scared to go all in on this and not win the competition,” Amicone told Domínguez.
Still 17 years old, Domínguez was just a year removed from becoming MLB’s most-hyped prospect thanks to a $5.1 million signing bonus, still a franchise record. Screaming tabloid headlines proclaimed he was the second coming of Mike Trout or Mickey Mantle, or both.
Domínguez looked at Amicone.
“Oh, really?” Domínguez said. “All right. Watch this.”
The muscle-bound center fielder then walked to the plate, and he crushed the next pitch he saw from the high-velocity pitching machine on the mound. The ball soared over the center-field wall. The exit-velocity sensor read 115 mph. Domínguez and his teammates celebrated wildly.
“There’s definitely something special about him,” Amicone remembered telling himself at the time.
Friday night, reality matched the hype again on its biggest stage yet when Domínguez pulled off a stunning feat. In his first major-league at-bat, he homered off Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander, a future Hall of Famer. It came on the second pitch he had ever seen in the major leagues, and on his first swing.
“It was my dream come true right in front of me,” Domínguez said via the Yankees’ Spanish interpreter.
“You can’t write it up any better than that,” said catcher Austin Wells, who also made his major-league debut Friday.
“That’s a pretty strong entry,” manager Aaron Boone said.
Domínguez’s two-run blast wasn’t just the highlight of a Yankees’ 6-2 win over Houston at Minute Maid Park that also saw Wells collect his first homer, Judge hit his 250th career home run and Giancarlo Stanton record his 399th career shot.
1st swing in The Show. Unbelievable. pic.twitter.com/fr9GK5zxBI
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) September 2, 2023
Domínguez’s home run — an opposite-field shot over the tall wall in left field — was maybe the highlight of a Yankees’ season plagued with disappointment. And they hope it’s a moment they can remember as the start of a new phase.
On Aug. 22, the Yankees all but announced that they had turned their attention toward 2024 and beyond when they called up outfield prospect Everson Pereira from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. With just a 0.2 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs, the Yankees called up Domínguez, their top overall prospect, and Wells, their top catching prospect.
When the Yankees formulated Friday’s lineup, five of the nine spots were occupied by rookies, including shortstop Anthony Volpe, second baseman Oswald Peraza and Pereira. Even the veterans noticed the shift in the vibes.
“We felt a different energy on the bus coming to the field (Friday),” Judge said. “A little bit of excitement, a little bit of jitters. But it was a good day.”
Domínguez, batting fifth and starting in center field, delivered on that buildup when he watched Verlander’s first-pitch curveball land for a strike before he clubbed a 94 mph fastball up and in the strike zone 360 feet at 100.2 mph. As Domínguez rounded the bases, his parents, Felix and Dorka, celebrated in the stands, surrounded by more than a dozen family members. When he reached home plate, he hit Giancarlo Stanton with a double high five.
“First ball he puts in play is to left field, to opposite field, that’s impressive,” said Judge, who homered in his first MLB at-bat in 2016. “Sometimes you see guys go up there and get a little anxious, a little eager, so they’re pulling off the ball and trying to hit it as hard as they can. But he seems cool, calm and collected in the box.”
Domínguez hit two more hard flyouts and a hard groundout to end his night 1-for-4. The Athletic’s Keith Law ranked him as the No. 29 prospect in baseball in his most recent top-60 update. Before the game, Domínguez spoke with reporters at his locker, talking about the hype that surrounded him, and then did an interview with the YES Network after his round of batting practice. It was a flurry of attention that few around the Yankees have received aside from Judge.
Yet Domínguez handled it all as if it were just another game.
“You don’t see that out of a rookie,” Judge said, “let alone (someone) 20 years old. That’s pretty impressive.”
For the Yankees, the hope is that Domínguez’s debut wasn’t just a highlight but more of a harbinger. He sparked an offense that has been near the bottom of most statistical categories all season. He brought excitement to a team at the bottom of the American League seat, on track to have its first losing season since 1992 and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
And Domínguez did it with a team of rookies around him the Yankees badly need to prove ready to be the ones to help fans turn the page on the disappointments of recent seasons. Friday, owner Hal Steinbrenner told The Associated Press the Yankees were considering hiring a company to examine the team’s inner workings.
“We’re going to have some very frank conversions with each other,” Steinbrenner told the AP. “This year was obviously unacceptable.”
A strong September from the Yankees’ youngsters — led by Domínguez, Volpe and Wells — could go a long way toward turning down at least some of the heat Steinbrenner and the rest of the organization will undoubtedly face on Oct. 2, the day after the Yankees play their final regular-season game.
The Yankees need Friday to have been more than just a feel-good moment for Domínguez.
“It’s one game,” Boone said, “but you get a peek (Friday) about why a lot of us are excited about him.”
(Photo of Jasson Domínguez hitting a two-run home run against the Astros in the first inning Friday at Minute Maid Park: Erik Williams / USA Today)