This Mercedes hit the road swinging

Yermin Mercedes’s only flaw so far is that, unlike several of the cars with whom he shares a name, he can’t go 0-60 in three seconds flat.

The question before the house (well, my house, anyway) is, what will happen if Yermin Mercedes hits a slump? Will the boo birds of Guaranteed Rate Field and on the road begin to call him Vermin Mercedes?

That was then: The rookie White Sox catcher/designated hitter went 0-for-2020. OK, that’s a ringer: he had but one plate appearance last irregular season. This is now: He went 8-for-2021 through the top of the sixth Saturday in Angel Stadium. Eight plate appearances, eight hits.

It was enough to put Mercedes all the way into the record books. He’s the lone major league baseball player in any league since 1900 to open a season 8-for-8. It was also enough to make him the most must-see baseball television of the new season’s first two or three days.

Mercedes isn’t as sleek looking as the automobile with which he shares a name, unless you mean the Mercedes-Benz GLA-class SUV series. But he doesn’t have to be, so far. Not when he delivered the way he did in the first two games between the White Sox and the Angels.

He’s not exactly a little green sprout otherwise, either. He’s a veteran of three Show organisations who saw no major league time until that lone 2020 plate appearance; the White Sox signed him in 2018 after he’d bumped around the minor leagues for the Nationals and the Orioles. At age 28, he’s a rather late bloomer. But what a bloom he showed in Anaheim to open the season.

He premiered Friday night, in a game the White Sox managed to win because the Angels’ pitching seemed determined to hand the White Sox a game the White Sox early on seemed bent on handing the Angels with defensive miscues. When he lined an Andrew Heaney changeup with one out in the top of the third, it didn’t necessarily suggest a date with the record book was on his schedule.

But then Mercedes punched one through the hole at shortstop for an RBI single in the top of the fourth off Angels reliever Javy Guerra’s sinker. From there he lined a single off a Chris Rodriguez cutter in the top of the sixth, lined another single off a Mike Mayers cutter in the top of the eighth, and tore a two-run double out of an Alex Claudio changeup in the top of the ninth.

Come Saturday night he made Friday’s proceedings resemble extended batting practise. He premiered in the top of the second against Alex Cobb, timed a splitter on 2-2, and sent it down the left field line and into the corner seats fair. He poked a Cobb sinker through the hole at second for a base hit in the top of the fourth and sent another Cobb sinker to the back of left center for an RBI double in the top of the sixth.

As God and His servant Frank Robinson are our witnesses, Angel Stadium fans must have thought, is there anybody who can get this sonofabitch out?? The answer proved to be another Angels bullpen bull, Tony Watson, with a little help from Mike Trout hauling down Mercedes’s one-out fly to deeper center in the top of the eighth.

So Mercedes proved only human, after all. Someone not watching the games but noticing his numbers in Sunday morning’s box scores or aboard Baseball Reference’s more complete updates could say, quietly but firmly, “Somebody’s getting him out—the bastard’s only hitting .888!”

The bastard was only a .302 hitter in eight minor league seasons, with a Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by plate appearances) of .551. He seems to have been there always, just waiting to be called upon. The White Sox haven’t regretted the call. So far.

At least a few social media someones actually began pondering his Hall of Fame chances to be. Oh, brother. Aside from the never-edifying hyperbolics, that kind of thinking doesn’t always prove satisfying when all is said and done.

Before Mercedes, the only player to go 5-for-5 in his major league premiere was Washington Senators infielder Cecil Travis in 1933. Travis went on to have a fine career, rudely interrupted by three and a half years’ military service during World War II—during which he suffered frostbite in his feet as one of the Battling Bastards of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

While Hall of Fame pitcher-to-be Warren Spahn earned a Purple Heart and a battlefield commission at the same battle, Travis’s feet were saved by immediate surgery but it cost him his balance. It ruined him in the infield and made him a sadly simple out at the plate. Considered the American League’s third-best player in 1941 when he led the league with 218 hits—Hall of Famer Ted Williams compared Travis’s swing at the plate favourably to that of 1990s star first baseman John Olerud—Travis retired in 1948.

Wish nothing of the Travis sort to happen to Mercedes before his major league playing days end, whenever they end. Not in battle, God forbid, or any other way. But while you savour the extraterrestrial feat he delivered in his first two 2021 games, pray that even as he returns to earth Mercedes keeps the head he displayed after the 5-for-5 night.

“I’m just trying to wait for my pitch and not do too much,” he told reporters. “Just stay right there and swing hard. It doesn’t matter if it is two strikes or no strikes, I just want to see the ball.” After consummating the 8-for-8 start and the 8-for-9 overall, Mercedes will need such a well-leveled head to continue effectively.

Most likely, Mercedes projects as a solid player with a solid plate approach who’ll be able to afford more than one model of his namesake car. If he proves he’s really only human, after all, please resist the sure-to-be-overwhelming temptation to call him Vermin.

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