By Tim Kawakami San Jose Mercury News
PHOENIX — He’s not just a baseball tall tale, not anymore.
Yoenis Cespedes stepped from the shadows Saturday and turned into a living, breathing, home-run-hitting major leaguer.
Next question: Can he be a season-saver, too?
“It was pretty electric,” manager Bob Melvin said of Cespedes’ performance. “We had guys that didn’t have to be here watching it. … Everybody was here.
“We were all pretty excited about watching him play.”
There was a lot to see, which is every reason why the Oakland Athletics paid $36 million to land Cespedes in the first place.
In the A’s 6-3 victory over the Reds at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the Cuban defector walked, singled and — in the last at-bat of his four-inning stint — blasted a deep home run far beyond the left field wall.
That wasn’t the stuff of simulated games or YouTube sensations. That was real. That was immensely real.
That was everything the A’s and Cespedes could’ve hoped his MLB debut game would be.
“I feel great and happy because I can see the resolve we have,” Cespedes said via translator Ariel Prieto.
So will it get easier from here?
“Nothing is easy,” Cespedes said. “You have to work.”
But the beauty of Cespedes’ presence on the A’s is that he can accomplish things that nobody else on the roster can do, and he showed that right away.
And you sure didn’t hear the A’s minimizing the significance of it.
They wanted it to feel large. They needed it to be accompanied by a drum roll and Cactus League intrigue.
“This is a day we’ve had marked on our calendar,” Melvin said before the game, jokingly adding that he expected to see three home runs, three stolen bases and a home-run-saving catch.
With the spotlight on and a franchise holding its breath just a bit, Cespedes came close enough.
“First game today, I felt a little pressure at home plate,” Cespedes said.
In his first plate appearance, Cespedes showed some unexpected plate discipline. He watched six Johnny Cueto pitches go by and didn’t swing at any of them, taking a walk.
In his second appearance, Cespedes slashed an RBI single to center field against Cueto to put the A’s up 3-0.
Then came the big finale, when Cespedes led off the fourth inning.
After watching ball one and then unleashing an off-balance swing-and-miss on a Jeff Francis off-speed pitch, Cespedes fouled off four consecutive off-speed deliveries.
“I saw the pitcher was mixing pitches, throwing some changes,” Cespedes said. “I tried to stay back a little bit instead of go forward.”
On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Francis finally tried to sneak in a fastball, and Cespedes was ready, sending it high through the chilly air over the left field wall.
The Cespedes debut line: walk, RBI single, home run, looked very comfortable in center field.
As an early comparison, I thought he looked a bit like a young Matt Holliday type, a hitter with easy power to all fields and with a fairly discriminating eye.
For someone who defected last year, played some organized ball in the Dominican Republic last fall and winter and has suddenly been plopped onto a major league roster, that is not bad.
“He seems to be acclimating all the way around at a very quick pace,” Melvin said.
Cespedes is scheduled to be the designated hitter today, then will be back in the outfield Monday.
From there, the A’s will see how it goes. I’d say it’s a great bet he’s the A’s starting center fielder when they open the season in Japan against the Mariners, even if incumbent Coco Crisp won’t be thrilled about that.
Either way, the A’s are soaking it up.
After the latest fire sale of All-Stars, this team needs attention, needs a middle-order bat, needs life and needs Cespedes-anity.
That’s worth $36 million, all of that.
“We’ve got a little more going on this spring,” Melvin said. “I mean, it’s nice to get some attention. Whether it’s the Manny (Ramirez) thing or Cespedes or whatever, it’s nice to have some national attention.
“It’s nice to have TV trucks out there and more than two or three people for these types of things.”
It’s the stuff of legend and campfire tales, and the A’s have the right to enjoy the heck out of it.
They might not be able to keep Cespedes forever, but for the moment, they don’t have to think about that.
Right now, they have Cespedes and nobody else does. That’s enough.