- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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Curtis Granderson was in the car on the short drive from Steinbrenner Field to Tampa International Airport, intending to play on Opening Day in Yankee Stadium, when a question from his traveling companion gave him a moment's pause.
"How do you think it will feel on a dive?" he was asked.
"It," of course, was the strained oblique that had kept Granderson off the field for a week and put his status for the opener in doubt until Wednesday night, after he played five innings of a minor-league game and came away believing he was ready.
But now, once again, there was doubt.
"You know, I never thought of that," Granderson said.
It had only been determined moments before, in a phone conversation with New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman, that Granderson would even make the trip to New York and be in the Opening Day lineup. Now, Granderson was running through the checklist in his head and realized he had skipped a couple of key items.
"Yeah, I had played," he said. "But there were still a lot of things I hadn't done, things that hadn't come up in the game. There were things that hadn't happened.''
Like diving for a ball. Or checking a swing, which was the way he got hurt in the first place.
With a full dive.
So dive he did, rib cage be damned. Granderson stretched full-length, stuck out his glove and landed hard on his chest as the crowd went nuts. At least one man, the guy with the salt-and-pepper crewcut in the Yankees dugout, drew a deep breath and held it.
"Anytime you hit the ground, it's not a good thing," Granderson said. "But it didn't hurt. Or, I should say, it didn't bother it."
In the Yankees' dugout, manager Joe Girardi wasn't so sure -- until he saw Granderson pull himself up off the turf with a smile on his face, one more item checked off the list.
"You usually worry more about a shoulder injury on a play like that," Girardi said. "But it looked like he landed right on it. But once he got up and I saw he was OK, I wasn't too concerned.''
And if that wasn't enough, in the next inning, Granderson came up against Justin Verlander and on the second pitch, a wicked changeup, he started to go around -- then stopped in mid-air, the mechanism of rotation rudely interrupted by the grip of indecision.
Again, no pain. Or at least, no more than when Granderson entered the game in frigid, damp 42-degree weather that made the Yankees' home opener more of an ordeal than a celebration.
And by the time Granderson crushed a fastball from Phil Coke -- a lefty, no less! -- into the second deck in right, breaking a 3-3 tie and providing the winning run in the Yankees 6-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers, he was feeling no pain.
"As long as I made good contact, I didn't feel anything,'' he said.
Anything but good, that is.
Still, he needed a half-hour to emerge from the trainer's room after the game after requiring some heat treatment on his damaged midsection.
On Thursday, the Grandy Man was no Candy Man. There was nothing soft or sweet or gooey about the Yankees' center fielder, who was doubtful for this game on Monday after rain in Tampa washed out his chance to take batting practice for the first time in a week, cautiously hopeful on Tuesday and pretty sure he could go on Wednesday.
But until he went full-tilt under game conditions, nobody could be sure if he was really fit to play.
After his performance in the opener -- not just one, but three terrific catches, the last one a play on a laser beam hit over his head in center that Willie Mays would have been proud of -- Granderson not only proved himself fit, but for one day at least, was the best player on the field in either uniform.
In his short tenure as a Yankee, Granderson has been oft-maligned for his failure to hit, especially left-handers, and his sometime underwhelming defense. But on Thursday, the Yankees simply don't win this game if he isn't in it.
The play in the first inning, while in no way pivotal, set the tone. His play in the sixth, when he snagged Alex Avila's sinking liner with a runner on second due to a combination of excellent placement and superior reflexes, saved a key run in a tight game.
His home run, of course, won the game and for his final act, a full-sprint, arm-outstretched reach for a ball that seemed ticketed for the warning track in dead-center, saved Mariano Rivera from, at the very least, an anxious moment in the ninth.
"A wonderful play,'' Rivera called it. He went on to get the final out, Avila looking at a cutter, and in the box score it will for all time look like a game that went exactly according to plan: a good start by Sabathia (six innings, two earned runs), come clutch hitting (a three-run HR by Mark Teixeira as well as Granderson's blast) and nine straight outs from the newly revamped bullpen, a flawless relay from Joba Chamberlain to Rafael Soriano to Rivera.
"It's how you drew it up," Girardi said.
Yes and no. Granderson playing at all was a minor upset. Granderson playing the game he did? Well, that was a revelation.
And Granderson's home run, coming as it did off a lefty, was a tantalizing look at the player he still might turn out to be as -- with apologies to Melky Cabrera -- the successor to Bernie Williams in center.
"Over the last three months of last year, he has been a different player for us,'' Girardi said. "He looks great.''
Ever since the now-famous swing overhaul he and hitting coach Kevin Long worked on during an off-day in Texas in August, Granderson has indeed looked like a different hitter.
Although he batted just .247 in his first year with the Yankees, 14 of Granderson's 24 homers came in August and September. And although his struggles against left-handers have been well-documented -- his career average against them is .215, and last year, he had just four home runs and 12 RBIs against lefty pitching -- a home run on Opening Day off a southpaw can't be viewed as anything but a hopeful sign that whatever he and Long installed last season is still working.
"I'd love to see it go away,'' Granderson said of the perception, backed up by hard numerical fact, that he can't hit lefties. "But I know there's still a lot of things that need to be done before I get it off the radar.''
In just one day of the regular season, Granderson was able to cross two major items off his personal to-do list. Given an entire season, who's to say what is beyond his capabilities?
Chamberlain got the win after pitching a 1-2-3 seventh, although the Yankee Stadium radar gun clocked his fastball at only 91 mph. ... Brett Gardner's first game as the leadoff hitter, against righties anyway, was a mixed bag: two strikeouts and two sacrifice bunts, although on the first one, he certainly looked as though he was bunting for a hit and got a dugout talking-to from Girardi. ... Derek Jeter, back in the No. 2 hole, went hitless but smoked a line drive to center in the seventh for a sac fly that scored the Yankees' fifth run. ... Teixiera was 1-for-17 with seven strikeouts against Verlander before hitting his home run in the third. ... Alex Rodriguez made two outstanding plays at third base and scorched a double off the base of the right-center-field fence. Might even have had a triple had he not taken the time to ostentatiously flip his bat away, gesture toward the dugout and Cadillac it to first, thinking he had hit a home run. ... Friday is an off day and then, the long-awaited 2011 debut of the revamped A.J. Burnett on Saturday afternoon (4:10 p.m. ET, FOX). RHP Brad Penny (3-4, 3.23 ERA) goes for the Tigers.
Curtis Granderson erased any doubt concerning his injury on Opening Day.