Warren Schaeffer sees parallels between the progression this season of his veteran first baseman Greg Bird and the progression of his Albuquerque Isotopes roster as a whole.
Neither started the season getting the results they felt were consistent with the work they were putting in. The Isotopes stumbling out of the gates to a 15-33 record by the end of June . Bird, the 28-year-old former New York Yankee who battled a slew of major injuries while in the pinstripes, was hitting just .210 as of June 19.
Things have certainly changed.
Bird, who went 0-1 and drew a walk as a late game pinch-hitter in Sunday’s 9-7 loss in 11 innings to the Sugar Land Skeeters, has hit .329 in the past 22 games since June 19, hit four home runs, four doubles, has 14 RBIs and has drawn 13 walks.
As for his team? The Isotopes entered July with a Triple-A West worst 15-33 record, but have gone 11-4 this month and are tied 2-2 in the six-game series with the Eastern Division-leading Skeeters.
“I see Greg Bird progressing almost equal to the way our team is,” said Schaeffer, the Isotopes’ first-year manager. “… I think his approach was always there, but you’re seeing some more dangerous swings now. I think you’re seeing him come into his body and feel comfortable – let loose a little more.”
Bird was once the presumptive first baseman of the future for the Yankees, but a series of major injuries left him averaging just 48 games and 183 plate appearances between the majors and minors over four seasons from 2016 through 2019. And his experience at the Texas Rangers alternative training site during a 2020 season, which saw the elimination of all minor league baseball, was what he called nothing like real game experience.
He got another chance to get back to the majors when signed this year by the Colorado Rockies and has led the Isotopes in games played this season (58) and already has had 234 plate appearances. He’s hitting .255 with 10 home runs and 34 RBIs, and his 33 walks rank in the top 10 in Triple-A West.
So, while he said he felt healthy all season, his recent success seems to be more about finally getting his mental legs under him again with game repetition than it was about getting his physical legs back under him.
“You hit the nail on the head, for sure,” Bird said. “Mental drives physical a lot of times. Obviously physical stuff comes up, but for sure, getting both aspects of my game going again – mental and physical – for me, I have to see it and experience it. You can’t replicate what you get in a game and that’s why I’m starting to get back in it now.”
But his own success, which also extends to the field where he appears to be a much more comfortable defensive first baseman today than on Opening Day, isn’t all that has been noticeable of late for the Isotopes.
At 28-years-old, Bird is hardly an old timer, but he was drafted out of high school, has a decade as a pro under his belt and between already having made it to the Majors once at the age of 22 and then gone through what could have easily been career-ending injuries for others, he has a baseball treasure chest of experiences to share.
“I’m not gonna necessarily initiate it,” Bird says of approaching younger teammates to offer advice, but he is willing to share. “I’m their teammate. We play baseball together. That’s what we do. That’s how older guys were with me when I was younger. And I just think being there and them watching you and seeing how you go about it is the most important thing.”
His manager says the balance Bird has struck between his own drive to get back to the big leagues while also taking on a young-veteran’s presence to help so many younger teammates has been impressive.
“He couldn’t handle it better,” Schaeffer said. “He does what he needs to do to get himself ready every day to play, but he also does everything he can do to help everybody else in that clubhouse when they need it — to help them along, to help them get to where they want to go, too. I mean, he’s the epitome of a great veteran leader. …
“And I know for a fact that he has helped guys. Guys have come to me and said ‘Greg Bird has really, really helped with what I’m doing right now.’ So, whether he thinks he is or not, he is.”
‘TOPES MONDAY: Vs. Sugar Land
6:35 p.m., 610 AM/95.9 FM, abqisotopes.com
PROBABLES: Skeeters RHP Peter Solomon (3-0, 5.24) vs. Isotopes RHP Brandon Gold (2-5, 6.22)
SUNDAY: Michael Papierski scored on a Heath Holder wild pitch in the 11th inning for the go-ahead run for the Sugar Land Skeeters in a 9-7 win over the Isotopes. (Click here for the box score, here for updated standings in Triple-A West.) Skeeter leadoff hitter S.J. Hinojosa was 4-of-5 with two home runs, a double, 3 RBIs, 3 runs and has had 10 hits in the four games so far in this series. LF Taylor Motter had two HRs for Albuquerque, his 13th and 14th of the season.
Wynton Bernard made an impressive, and entertaining, catch on the ‘Topes Slope in center field, as seen below.
Wynton Bernard!!! Wowowowow. wow.
Blow kisses! 😙
Wave to your fans! 👋
— Albuquerque Isotopes (@ABQTopes) July 19, 2021
BREGMAN UPDATE: The Houston Chronicle reported Sunday that the Houston Astros now appear to be targeting Sugar Land’s next series beginning Thursday at Oklahoma City as when Albuquerque native Alex Bregman (quadriceps strain in June) would begin his rehab assignment. Bregman had raised hopes about a week ago in media interviews that he would begin his rehab assignment with the Skeeters in Albuquerque, but that appears to be off the table.