There are some Spring Training mornings that are sleepier than others. Mornings where the players you planned to interview are unavailable and you spend an hour staring at your iPhone, the clubhouse television or the carpet. Every reporter hates those unproductive sessions.
On one of those mornings that was headed toward being sleepy this spring, I ended up having my first conversation with Thomas Neal. Neal was a long shot to make the Yankees to open the season after being signed as a minor league free agent, but I had been impressed with his at bats so we started chatting. Soon, I was impressed with Neal’s demeanor, too.
For a player who only had 24 plate appearances in the Major Leagues with the Cleveland Indians and who spent most of 2012 with Class AA Akron, Neal was confident. Confident in a good way, too, not a cocky way. He spoke about his career in a thoughtful manner, explaining what he had done to make it this far and what he needed to do to make it to the big leagues and remain there.
When I asked Neal if he expected to help the 2013 Yankees, he didn’t hesitate and instantly said that he did. Two players who overheard Neal’s confident answer glanced in his direction, but I don’t think Neal even noticed that. He was focused on his plan, his path to making sure this season would be a season in which he contributed to the Yankees.
“For me, a big part of doing well in this game has been the mental side,” Neal said. “I know what I can do. I have to stay confident and show that I can do it.”
By staying confident and producing at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Neal (.339 average, .426 on-base percentage, two homers, 24 runs batted in) earned himself a promotion to the Yankees on Friday. The Yankees’ offense has been abysmal, going scoreless in the final 17 innings of a 3-2, 18-inning loss to the Oakland Athletics on Thursday. Mark Teixeira, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner and Kevin Youkilis combined to go 0-for-28 with 12 strikeouts. New York was 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position.
Neal is not a savior for an offense that is 11th in the American League with 260 runs, but he gives Manager Joe Girardi another option against left-handed pitchers. In recalling Neal, the Yankees hope he can provide some kind of offense, any kind of offense. Both Wells and Ichiro Suzuki, the Yankees’ corner outfielders, have vanished.
Because the Yankees have been so uninspiring on offense, Neal will get a chance to contribute. It’s an opportunity that Neal envisioned during our conversation in spring training. When Neal wasn’t describing his grandfather’s baseball career and how he names his gloves, he predicted that he would help the Yankees in 2013. Beginning on Friday night, Neal gets his chance.