The Yerminator Has Landed

Five years, 10 years, 25 years from now, few will remember the botched fly balls and blown leads, but the legend of Yermin Mercedes will remain alive.

Chances are, even a century into the future, his eight hits in as many at-bats to kick off the season will remain as the hottest streak ever for a ballplayer's first two games of a new campaign. The Yerminator has landed.

However, the journey has not always been smooth for the 28-year-old Dominican. Signed 10 years ago by the Washington Nationals, the barrel-chested catcher was a man without a team just 2½ years later. The Nats apparently weren't appropriately impressed with Mercedes' three seasons in the Dominican Summer League, where he hit .296 with an on-base mark of .373.

The White Sox' newest darling was undaunted. Still in the infancy of his career, he hooked on with three different clubs in the independent Pecos League during the 2014 season. We all can be forgiven if we've never heard of the Pecos League, but it sure sounds like a lot of fun. Most of the clubs seven years ago were located in scenic New Mexico in little ballparks in places like Raton, Taos and Santa Fe.

Mercedes landed in White Sands, home of the Pupfish, a species that Wikipedia reports are found in "extreme and isolated situations," which is pretty much where Yermin found himself. In 37 games he hit .417 with 15 homers and 56 RBIs. Even in the hinterlands of New Mexico, you raise a few eyebrows with those kind of numbers when you're just 21 with a drive to be a professional ballplayer.

The Orioles inked the kid to a contract, and Mercedes rose to Double-A in the Baltimore chain before the Sox nabbed him as a Rule 5 draft pick prior to the 2018 season. Playing between Birmingham and Charlotte in 2019, the newly-minted Yerminator slashed .317/.388/.968 with 23 homers and 80 RBIs, earning a spot on the Sox's taxi squad for last season's COVID-compromised saga. He appeared in one game, pinch-hitting on Aug. 2 in a 9-2 blowout of the Royals, grounding to second in his first major league at-bat.

A strong showing in spring training this year earned him a spot with the big team as it headed to Anaheim for the season's opening series. If there is a Poster Boy for a baseball lifer, I nominate Yermin Mercedes.

After watching his club drop the opener last Thursday to the Angels, the excitement began on Friday as Mercedes, batting eighth as the DH, singled in his first at-bat. Standing at first base, Albert Pujols joyfully tossed the ball to Mercedes for posterity. Had Pujols known what was to follow, he might not have been as accommodating. Four hits followed in the Sox's 12-8 victory, the lone triumph of the weekend.

The pundits got busy investigating all the instances of guys going 5-for-5 in just the second game of their careers.

The last player to match Mercedes' feat on Friday was Jack Dalton of the Brooklyn Dodgers, playing in his career's second game against the New York Giants on June 21, 1921. Dalton contributed five singles in that contest. Dalton hit .314 that season, his first of four at the major league level.

So it only took 100 years for someone to match Dalton's productivity.

Of course, Mercedes was far from finished. His first home run of the season followed by a single and double, accounting for a couple of RBIs, went into the books for the Yerminator's first three at-bats on Saturday, giving him those eight consecutive base knocks to start his season. Mercedes can go hitless in his next 16 at-bats and still be hitting .300.

Not only were Mercedes' teammates amazed by his performance, but the Angels chipped in with their own congratulatory gestures. Prior to Sunday's game, a 7-4 walkoff Angels victory on the strength of Jared Walsh's three-run shot off Matt Foster, Mercedes posed for a photo flanked by Pujols and the incomparable Mike Trout.

Per the Sox website, Mercedes disclosed that Angel shortstop José Iglesias extended his personal plaudits during the game as Mercedes stood on second base.

Can you imagine a defensive lineman or cornerback going up to Tom Brady during a game and extending congratulations for yet another Brady TD pass? Or a hockey goalie extending his admiration to Patrick Kane after the Blackhawks superstar flicked the puck past him yet again? Baseball clearly is a different animal.

Of course, Mercedes can't keep up this torrid pace, but his approach indicates that this guy has the potential to be an above average major league hitter. Depending on the situation over the weekend, he either used a leg kick or kept his front foot planted. With two strikes, he seeks contact, a rare trait in this home run-driven age. His mechanics seem to change to fit the count and whether runners are on base.

In addition, we may see more of Mercedes behind the plate to spell Yasmani Grandal. In 2019 between Birmingham and Charlotte, Mercedes threw out 27 of 62 would-be base-stealers, a 44 percent rate. Grandal's average is 27 percent over a 10-year big league career.

Zack Collins got the catching assignment on Saturday. Shohei Ohtani stole second, getting a big jump on Lance Lynn, but Collins generally gave a decent account of himself. He also had a hit and reached on a walk. In eight at-bats in this young season, Collins has fanned just one time.

Since Collins bats from the left side, Mercedes from the right, and Grandal from both, the Sox catching core appears strong. Any of the three also can handle the DH duties, which might indicate that rookie Andrew Vaughn could be headed to Schaumburg's alternate training site and then to Charlotte when its season begins on May 4. Wherever he lands in the next few weeks, Vaughn will have a role in the Sox's long-term future.

Talking about future, the Sox won't see the Angels again until three mid-week games in Chicago in September. We'll be over the Shotei Ohtani hype by then, which was highlighted in Sunday's nationally televised game as Ohtani pitched into the fifth inning while batting second and hitting the first pitch he saw from Dylan Cease 450 feet into the right centerfield bleachers.

Announcers Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez were simply gaga over Ohtani, and the first inning homer put them right over the edge, so much so that Vasgersian's first question during an in-game interview with Lucas Giolito focused on Ohtani.

Lucas seemed puzzled by the inquiry and gave sort of a "Yeah, he's pretty good" response. But for crying out loud, the Sox were engaged in a contest to beat the guy, not to drool over him. Besides, Giolito is every bit the pitcher Ohtani is, and then some.

Make no mistake. Ohtani is a gifted athlete and a unique ballplayer. However, Vasgersian's questions should have been aimed at the home team's dugout rather than at Giolito.

The club headed north to Seattle after Sunday's game where they'll meet the young Mariners three times before opening the home season Thursday against the much-improved Royals. Chances are we'll see more of the Yerminator, either in the DH spot - please, Tony, don't try him in left field - or at catcher. He'll be worth watching as well as the rest of the ballclub to make sure that the follies of flubbed pop flys, late-inning bullpen woes, and lack of situational hitting were simply aberrations in Anaheim.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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