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Tyler Austin 'celebrates' a dubious anniversary with a prodigious blast

NEW YORK -- A year ago this very week, Tyler Austin’s career with the New York Yankees appeared to be over.

The player dubbed a "mega-prospect'' by Yankees GM Brian Cashman in 2012 was suddenly persona non grata at the end of 2015, designated for assignment so that the Yankees could clear space on their 40-man roster for three spare parts, one of which was Rico Noel, whose only value to the team was as a pinch runner.

For four whole days, Austin sat in limbo, available to be claimed by any other team off the waiver wire, which was a chance the Yankees were willing to take. And when no one did, the Yankees pulled Austin back but demoted him to their AA affiliate in Trenton. It was a humbling comedown for a highly-touted prospect who it now appeared the Yankees had given up on.

"When something like that happens it kinda seems like that,'' Austin said in the Yankees clubhouse Friday night. "I was upset that it all happened, of course. You never want anything like that to happen. I had no idea what was going on.''

But Austin had provided a clue as to what went wrong on the road to big-league fame and fortune when he said, "I didn't work as hard as I could have, and you know, bad things happen.''

Asked to elaborate on his self-admitted lack of work ethic, Austin backpedaled somewhat. "Well, I guess I didn't,'' he said. "It was one of those things where you second-guess all of that stuff. I've always known what I could do on a baseball field. Last year I didn’t have a good year at all, trying to do too much, trying to be somebody I didn’t have to be. Look at the numbers. They weren't there. So I went home and did a lot of re-evaluating and came back this year with the mindset I was going to work as hard as I can every single day and hopefully good things would happen.''

It hadn't been all that long since the triumvirate of Austin, Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams appeared to be the Yankees outfield of the future. But Williams suffered a serious shoulder injury that required surgery, and Heathcott would be released by the organization in May 2016. And now, after a season in which he hit just .235 with four home runs, 29 RBIs and a .619 OPS in 73 AAA games, it appeared that Austin's stock had fallen to the point that his future, if he still had one, would take place somewhere other than Yankee Stadium.

Fast forward a year. Austin was one of three "mega-prospects'' recalled by the Yankees on August 13. One of them Gary Sanchez, took off immediately and only now is slowly returning to earth. The other, Aaron Judge, has struggled against big-league pitching.

And Tyler Austin, the guy who was nearly an ex-Yankee a year ago, has displaced Mark Teixeira as the everyday first baseman in this final, crucial stretch of games that might well lead to another unexpected destination, a playoff spot.

So far, Austin has hit three major-league home runs, and all three have been significant in their own way. He homered in his first big-league at-bat, and became part of baseball history when Judge followed with his first major-league HR, too, becoming the first pair of rookies in MLB history to hit back-to-back homers in their first major-league at-bats.

Then, on Tuesday, Austin homered on his 25th birthday, not only giving the Yankees a temporary lead over the Toronto Blue Jays but also becoming the first Yankee to homer on his birthday since Alex Rodriguez blew out 40 candles in 2015.

But Austin outdid himself Thursday night, belting a solo HR in the bottom of the ninth to give the Yankees a walk-off win over the Tampa Bay Rays and earn himself his first career Gatorade bath. he also became the first Yankees rookie to hit a walkoff since Melky Cabrera did it nearly 10 years ago.

"Oh, it was exciting,'' said Austin, a low-key type. "Got a lot of text messages last night and today. Still getting them, but I’m trying not to think about that today. It’s in the past. So let’s move forward and try to win again tonight.''

For a moment, it appeared Joe Girardi might pinch-hit Teixeira for Austin in that ninth inning, and the two were seen joking and laughing in the clubhouse just after Austin's game-winning at-bat. Were they discussing Austin's approach against Rays reliever Erasmo Ramirez?

Not at all.

"Before the game, I was going to wear one belt and Tex told me to wear a different one,'' Austin said. "I did, and you saw what happened. So we were talking about a belt.''

And what a belt it was. "I'm wearing this belt every night now,'' Austin said.

Considering where he was a year ago at this time, anything that keeps Tyler Austin here is something he's going to hold on to.