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Culture / Sporting Life

Robinson Chirinos Gets a Bigger Hit Than Aaron Judge, Proves Journeyman Catchers Can Have All Rise Moments Too

Rangers Discard is Loving the Big Game Houston Astros Life — and Proving He's Plenty Impact

BY // 04.09.19

Robinson Chirinos never expected to be a Houston Astro. He thought the Texas Rangers would pick up the option on his contract as the club’s GM Jon Daniels told him they would. But things change in baseball and Chirinos is getting used to the Astro life.

It certainly comes with its share of perks.

Like the chance to play in big games. Like the chance to bring an entire ballpark to its feet — even with Mr. All Rise himself, Aaron Judge, in the opposite dugout.

Discarded by the Rangers, the veteran catcher found a team where moments are in play, a team where being in contention is a given.

“It’s fun,” Chirinos tells PaperCity of his new Houston reality. “You have a lineup from one to nine that can do damage and hit a ball out of the ballpark, put a good at-bat together in a big spot. To go against these guys for so many years and seeing what they can do being on this side right now…

“I just feel blessed to be an Astro right now.”

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It turns out the Astros may be blessed right back.

For no one delivers a bigger moment than Chirinos in the first game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees this season. No one comes up larger on the grand stage. On a night when Jose Altuve hits one off the railroad tracks and Judge blasts a 95 MPH Justin Verlander fastball over the Powerade sign in right field, Robinson Chirinos’ bat speaks loudest.

It is a 34-year-old catcher who is no one’s idea of a superstar who changes the game. Chirinos makes the Yankees’ feared bullpen look mortal, slamming a two run double off the Astros’ bullpen fence in deep center in the game’s biggest moment in the bottom of the seventh inning.

This is how you turn a game. One moment, a “Let’s Go Yankees! Let’s Go Yankees!” chant is breaking out at a surprisingly subdued Minute Maid Park. The next, Chirinos is turning on a Zack Britton fastball and sending it skyrocketing into the night, screaming right for that wall.

Britton comes into the game having not allowed a run yet this young season. He’ll leave it with an empty feeling — and the realization that the Astros just won a game against one of the few other true contenders in the American League by doing what teams aren’t supposed to be able to do against the Yankees — rally off baseball’s best bullpen.

The Yankees lead 3-1 going into the seventh and lose 4-3, another testament to a Houston team that never stops fighting.

“It’s expected,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch says after his team wins its fourth straight, rendering that 2-5 start and all that silly angst moot. “We’re good. We have a good team. We have a good feel for the moment.”

“I just feel blessed to be an Astro right now” — Robinson Chirinos.

Judge is the All Rise Guy. The New York Yankees’ towering slugger is the superstar who is supposed to bring ballparks to its feet.

But in baseball it’s often not about hype as much as it’s about grit.

And Robinson Chirinos has enough grit to star in that Deadwood movie. He shook off the disappointment of the Rangers’ second thoughts to sign with Texas’ other Major League Baseball team, the actual contending Texas team. And he’s been nothing but sunshine and positive vibes since he first showed up at Spring Training.

Mr. Sunshine

If Robinson Chirinos has bad days, his teammates haven’t seen them yet.

“He’s a great catcher, great hitter,” Tyler White says of Chirinos. “But you can’t say enough about how good of a guy he is. He’s one of the nicest guys. Every day he comes in, ‘Hey, man. How you doing?’

“He’s one of the best guys to be around.”

He is also looking more and more like a shrewd free agent pickup for Astros GM Jeff Luhnow. Houston fans may have been lusting after All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto, but the signing of a catcher many regarded as an afterthought is already paying dividends.

The exit velocity on Chirinos’ game-turning double Monday night? 103 MPH. That is scorched.

Chirinos set career-highs with 18 home runs and 65 RBI in Arlington last season — and you get the sense he believes he can do even more with this stacked Astros team.

“I’m going to have a lot of people on base,” Chirinos tells PaperCity. “Not to take away anything from my ex-teammates with the Rangers, I feel like we did really well too. Last year, I had 65 RBIs with a team that lost a lot of games.

“I don’t really think about my numbers. I feel as a catcher I’ve got to do a lot to keep the game close. As a hitter, the only thing I want to do is put good at-bats together. I’m ready to compete and if I do that, I think I’m going to be able to have a great year.

“We’ll see. We’ll see what is going to happen.”

His future depends on it. Chirinos signed with Houston on a one year, $5.75 million prove-it contract. This is someone who didn’t play his first big league game until he was 27 years old, someone who didn’t carve out anything close to a regular role until he was 30.

Robinson Chirinos knows all about battling for everything he’s got.

Superstars may power seasons, and marketing campaigns, but battlers still matter in this most unpredictable of sports. White, another grit and grind Astro, is the one who scores the tying run from first on Chirinos’ double, just beating Gary Sanchez’s attempted tag at the plate with a finishing flourish, flying beard and all, that many didn’t know he had.

“Did you see him flying around the bases?” Hinch asks. “I didn’t know how fast he was till that play.”

When you’ve fought to get to the Big Leagues, there may be an extra gear called desire.

“I was running for my life,” White laughs at his locker afterwards. “I knew we needed it. I don’t know how fast I am, but I gave it as much as I could.”

Houston Astros Tyler White
Tyler White made sure he scored from first to tie the game at 3 in the seventh, just beating the tag. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

On a night when the Astros win the game on a swing that shatters Carlos Correa’s bat and sends the ball dribbling just far enough up the first base line, the little things scream out.

This first Astros-Yankees game of 2019 is all about fight and grit. It’s Chirinos’ type of game, won by his type of team.

“It’s a team that never gives up,” the new catcher says of the Astros. “We talk in the dugout from the first inning to the ninth that you never know when somebody’s going to do something.”

Jose Altuve’s Train Track Bomb

Jose Altuve does something early, depositing a Masahiro Tanaka slider onto the train tracks high above the field. The ball bounces off the tracks and caroms off toward the street below. It is as impressive a home run as you’ll see all season — something you might expect the hulking 6-foot-7 Judge to hit rather than the Astros’ 5-foot-6 second baseman.

Of course, Altuve’s built a career that is tracking toward the Hall of Fame off of defying expectations. This 448-foot bomb against the Bronx Bombers is no different.

The Yankees come into the series red hot, having absolutely obliterated the Orioles 29-11 in a three game sweep, showering Camden Yards in home runs. Judge and Co. do not approach those gaudy run totals against the Astros. They’re held scoreless by the Astros’ bullpen.

This Monday at the ballpark is not about putting on a show. It’s about finding ways to win when it matters.

Robinson Chirinos is embracing the big game moment his new team provides — after several seasons of playing outside the spotlight in Arlington for the rebuilding Rangers. Series like this one between the Astros and Yankees — a matchup that means something even if it’s still just early April (this is one of only two series these teams will play this entire regular season) — are no longer the norm for the Rangers.

They’re the Astros’ way of life. One that Chirinos is already loving. One that his teammates see him relentlessly preparing for, day after day after day.

“He brings it every day,” White says of Chirinos. “Catching, he’s always ready. He knows his game plan. And at the plate, he’s hitting very well. It’s unbelievable to watch him work every day.”

Robinson Chirinos just wants to put in the time — and play. He’s an unexpected Astro. Life’s good.

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