'Release the Kraken!' How Gary Sanchez is making 2019 his year

NEW YORK -- In a season that has so far been defined by the contributions of a medley of once mostly unknown New York Yankees, it can be hard singling out one player. But nearly 20 homers into a season that isn't even 60 games old yet, here we are.

The big slugger whom general manager Brian Cashman calls "the Kraken" has been unleashed -- and he is having quite the impact.

If 2017 was the year of Aaron Judge on the Yankees' lunar calendar, and 2018 was the year of Giancarlo Stanton, then it's starting to look like it's safe to call -- even at this very early juncture -- 2019 the year of Gary Sanchez.

"The guy's got a really good swing, and it's been an impressive result this last May and June now -- these last six weeks -- he's been really hot," Yankees first baseman Luke Voit said. "He's probably one of the best power hitters in the game, and he's going to make you pay if you leave it up in the zone."

Actually, as Boston Red Sox starter Rick Porcello learned in the Yankees' 5-3 win in the Bronx on Saturday night, even if you don't leave a pitch up in the zone, Sanchez still can hurt you.

With a swing that was one part awkward, another part majestic, Sanchez proved yet again that his surprising yet historically strong start is no fluke. As long as he stays healthy, swings like the big one he had to help secure yet another Yankees series win show that he might be regarded as one of the game's top power hitters by season's end.

"When he gets locked in, and he's in a good position to hit and when he's healthy, he's just very, very dangerous," said Yankees veteran outfielder Brett Gardner.

It was in the bottom of the fifth on Saturday when, in a tie game, Sanchez reached all the way across home plate, connecting with an 84.4 mph Porcello slider that ultimately slid a couple of inches out of the strike zone. Just not far enough to escape Sanchez's swing.

The two-run homer put the Yankees out in front for good. It proved to be the game-winning hit that would give them their ninth straight series win. It's the first time since August 1998 that they've won that many consecutive series. The Yankees claimed their 24th World Series that season.

Because of how far off the plate Porcello's pitch was, and because of how slightly out in front of it Sanchez was, the Yankees catcher ended up making contact with one hand, muscling a powerful, opposite-field drive 403 feet into the Yankees bullpen beyond the wall in right-center. It was as impressive a home run as Sanchez has had all season, and that's before noting that he already has hit seven farther than 430 feet with two hands.

"Not many guys are capable of doing that," Gardner said. "Gary is one of the most talented hitters in the league, and he continues to find ways to impress us."

Rare feat of strength or not, New York manager Aaron Boone wasn't shocked to see the ball leave the field.

"Don't think anyone out there looking at me is surprised," Boone said, addressing reporters from his podium. "He's a special talent, and tremendous power, obviously -- to kind of reach out and flick that out one-handed shows that."

Sanchez considered the circumstances that led to his comparatively unorthodox swing to be quite normal.

"When I started swinging, it was in the strike zone and then kept on going out," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "That's how baseball is. Sometimes you're going to swing at pitches that are not going to be in the zone, and you're still going to be able to connect."

The homer was Sanchez's 18th this season. He launched it in just his 147th at-bat. Last year, he totaled 18 homers, and he hit them in 323 at-bats, while sporting a .186 batting average.

What has helped make the powerful, .264 hitting, .987 OPS-having Sanchez so improved at the plate this year?

His health.

While he did have a brief injured list stint due to a left calf strain earlier this season, Sanchez has had markedly better injury luck than he did in 2018. Much of his previous year was derailed by a pair of trips to the disabled list with groin strains. He also spent the season playing through a shoulder injury that ultimately required offseason surgery.

"Looking back at last year, I dealt with that and it was tough," Sanchez said. "I still thought that I was able to play with the discomfort in the shoulder, but that's not an excuse. You can never use that as an excuse, and it feels good right now."

Even if Sanchez doesn't like using his past health as a crutch, his teammates could see the limitations it still had on him.

"Last year was kind of a weird year for him," Voit said. "[But] he's raking right now, and it's really impressive. That's why I get so hyped.

"He's being Gary Sanchez. Release the Kraken, man."

It was Cashman who back in 2015 and 2016 initially started referring to Sanchez as the Kraken, a nod to the sea monster in the 1981 movie "Clash of the Titans." Since then, the nickname has stuck, and Sanchez has firmly embraced it.

One of two catchers since 1900 to hit 17 home runs before June 1, Sanchez inked his name in the history books on Wednesday when he launched one of his 430-plus-foot bombs off the San Diego Padres' Eric Lauer. With that blast, Sanchez joined Roy Campanella from 1953 as the only catchers in the past 119 years to have 17 or more homers before the start of June. (Ivan Rodriguez and Ozzie Virgil both had 16 before the start of June in 2000 and 1987, respectively.)

What also has made Sanchez's power-hitting run so special this season is that it has come at a time when the Yankees have been without sluggers Stanton, Judge, Didi Gregorius and Miguel Andujar, due to injuries. Aaron Hicks also missed the first month and a half of the season due to his own ailment that began in spring training. All five of those players hit 27 or more home runs last season.

"Gary has really stepped up and filled that void in the middle of the lineup that we've been missing lately," Gardner said. "So, when you're missing some important guys like that out of the middle of the lineup, obviously it's important to find guys to not necessarily fill those shoes, because they're pretty big shoes to fill, but just to step up and get the job done."

The Kraken has done all of that.

As the Yankees eye not only a series sweep of the Red Sox on Sunday and another intradivision series win this upcoming week at the Toronto Blue Jays, expect Sanchez to be right there continuing to contribute. To do that, he just has to stay on the field.