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Viewpoint This Luke may not be a fluke

March 29, 2019

NEW YORK — There always is a race to go start to finish in a New York minute. And the distance between a leap of faith and absolute conclusions on social media?

That can be fewer than 140 characters.

So if you merge Big City with Big Twitter on an opening day in the Bronx, the answers are easy.

Luke Voit is going to hit 162 home runs, drive in 648 runs and bat 1.000 in 2019.

And Greg Bird? Before he swung at an 0-2 hanging slider from Paul Fry in the bottom of the eighth inning of a 7-2 rout of the Baltimore Orioles, Bird surely was going to strike out 648 times this year. And most of them had better be in Scranton Wilkes-Barre.

The cry of “Luuuuuke!” from the 46,928 Yankee Stadium fans was so loud when Voit walked up to the plate Thursday, he later joked he shouldn’t have any walkup music.

“It’s pretty awesome, man,” Voit said. “That ‘Luuuuuke’ chant fires me up every time.”

The growing boos that Bird heard in the fifth inning after he struck out for the third time? Well, they were a decided message, too.

Voit and Bird are in a battle for the Yankees’ first-base job and judging by fan reaction there is no doubt which way New York is leaning these days. Both have minor league options left and the loser eventually figures to find himself in Triple-A. For now, with Aaron Hicks on the disabled list with a back injury, there’s room for both.

Voit only swung the bat twice on this day and the first sent a baseball 428 feet over the center-field fence for a gargantuan home run in the first inning off starter Andrew Cashner.

It would be Bird’s last swing that sent that a hanging Fry slider into the right-center field seats that would even matters on the dinger chart.

Voit 1, Bird 1.

Which in the popularity metric charts puts Voit up 46,928-1.

“It’s crazy how the fans took me in,” Voit said. “I hope they don’t boo me away too quick. I know it’s New York. But you know what? I bring energy, have fun with the guys and I think a lot of fans feed on that.”

Voit was the last cut of the St. Louis Cardinals last year. He opened the season in Memphis. His acquisition at the trade deadline caused barely a ripple in the Yankees clubhouse. Yet after a crazy finish last year, and with all the raw emotion the guy brings, here we were in Luuuuuke Land in the 48-degree chill.

On opening day 2018, who would have guessed Voit would be the Yankees’ cleanup hitter on opening day 2019? No one.

“It’s unbelievable,” Voit said. “Who would have thought I would be here for opening day? I always thought I’d do it in a Cardinal uniform. It was super-frustrating getting hurt last year and missing opportunities to get called up with St. Louis.

“This is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

The Yankees hit a major league-record 267 home runs last year and the possibility of 300 isn’t off the board. The Yankees are looking for mature, patient hitting for their stars, and eight walks in Game 1 put a smile on manager Aaron Boone’s face. And the decided edge in the bullpen? Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera may have thrown out the ceremonial first pitch, but that bullpen that starts 2019 is the reason I join a chorus in picking the Yankees over the world champion Red Sox in the AL East.

Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Sanchez, the three right-handed hitters destined to lead the Yankees to astronomical home run totals, all adroitly went to the opposite field for singles. That was the beauty part of the first inning. The beast part came on that 3-1 Cashner slider that Voit crushed. According to Katie Sharp of River Avenue Blues, Voit saw 217 breaking balls last year and had hit only one for a home run.

Voit saw only one strike in his final three at-bats. He walked twice. With the bases loaded in the fifth inning, Mike Wright’s 93 mph 1-0 fastball hit Voit on the elbow. He doesn’t wear any protective padding. Had to sting.

“All good,” Voit said. “Brushed it off. No worries.”

He got another RBI to boot.

“What a day,” Boone said. “Great at-bats. That’s what we talk with him all the time, how well he controls the strike zone, the ability to the hit ball with authority the other way. Opening day, you got a three-run homer in the books, you can get a little greedy with runners on base. He never left the zone. Never got out of himself.”

Bird, at 26, is considered a better fielder and once was considered the first baseman of the Yankees’ future. He struggled to hit .190 and .199 the past two seasons. Let’s put it this way. The fans aren’t telling him he’s the next Gehrig when he walked to the plate. What he’s hearing isn’t “Louuuuu!” Yet there he was, lefty on lefty, 0-2, in his final at-bat, risking full-throated boos in an otherwise rousing opening day victory when everybody in the lineup reached base. Boom. Home run.

“Talk about salvaging,” Boone said. “What I loved is he didn’t budge. He probably got rung up the time before on a pitch that maybe was not on the plate. He didn’t flinch or change his approach. I really liked the way he dealt with everything on opening day. I’ve been there. You want to do something so bad it’s hard to stay disciplined. He did and was rewarded for it.”

Voit, meanwhile, seems to be rewarded at every turn and has hit home runs in four consecutive games dating to last Sept. 27. This is a guy who only had 137 plate appearances with the Cardinals before he came to the Bronx, a guy who was a 22nd-round amateur draft pick in 2013. Suddenly, there he was hitting .333 with a .405 OBP and 1.095 OPS in 39 games with the Yankees.

Yankees fans remember Shelley Duncan and Kevin Maas. So it will be months, even years, before real career conclusions can be made. But Voit continued to hit well in spring training. He has prospered under Yankee coaching. At 28, he seems to understand his opportunity. He sure is having a helluva time.

Luuuuuke does not look to be a Fluuuuuke.

“It was a ‘pinch me’ moment the first time I walked into this locker room,” Voit said. “All-Stars, future Hall of Famers … Hitting with guys that won the Home Run Derby and trying to hang with them every day, which is kind of frustrating sometimes when you feel like the baby of the group.

“Swinging at balls in the zone, not chasing anything, this is a good start. I don’t want to get away from that. The first time I was called up last year I tried to be someone I wasn’t. I tried to hang with those guys (Stanton, Judge). I’m not saying I can’t. But I’ve got to be Luke Voit and not try to be a futuristic superhero that takes over.”

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123