ST. PETERSBURG — Gary Sanchez has pushed himself into the American League rookie of the year talk despite playing in only his 42nd game Tuesday.
Whether he has played enough to be worthy is a debate for another time. What he has proven in this small sample is that he is a game-changer.
The rookie catcher changed Tuesday's game at Tropicana Field with a three-run homer in the seventh inning off Brad Boxberger for the winning runs in the Yankees' come-from-behind 5-3 win.
What made the moment even more significant is that Boxberger didn't have to pitch to Sanchez.
The Yankees had runners at second and third with two outs. With first base open, Boxberger could have intentionally walked the August AL player of the month and opted to face Billy Butler.
That was the discussion when pitching coach Jim Hickey visited Boxberger before the at-bat.
"(Hickey) said we have an opportunity to either face Sanchez or Butler. The matchup was better against Butler but he left it up to me, and I wanted Sanchez," Boxberger said. "It didn't work out today, but there's always tomorrow."
Boxberger started Sanchez with a slider that caught too much of the plate. Sanchez drove the pitch 437 feet into the left-centerfield stands for a 5-2 lead.
"I just went up there looking for a fastball," Sanchez aid. "It wasn't a fastball. It was a slider, and it was right there, and I was able to put a good swing on it."
Boxberger said he started Sanchez off with the slider because he knew he was sitting on a fastball.
"First-pitch slider against me is probably not in the scouting report too much," Boxberger said. "To be able to do what he did is pretty impressive."
There were contradictions in the postgame retelling of the moment.
Rays manager Kevin Cash said there was never any thought to walking Sanchez to load the bases, because he expected the Yankees to have Brian McCann to hit for Butler. McCann is 0-for-5 lifetime against Boxberger. Butler is 0-for-2. Small samples, for sure, but those were the options.
Boxberger allowed four runs on four hits that inning and undid a solid six-inning start by Drew Smyly, who was in line for his sixth straight win.
Cash said he pulled Smyly after 87 pitches because he felt Smyly did his job and the bullpen was set up to get the remaining nine outs.
The four runs allowed tied Boxberger's career high. He has taken the loss in three of his past four appearances. As it was, he had already given up the lead by the time Sanchez stepped to the plate.
Boxberger said he was "absolutely" confident he would get Sanchez for the final out of the inning.
"I like the matchup, and it's the competitor in me," Boxberger said. "If they wanted me to walk him, 100 percent they would have told me. They left it up to me, and it didn't work out this time."