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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2016 — #22: Trevor Story and Gary Sanchez make big rookie splashes

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We’re a few short days away from 2017 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2016. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Neither Trevor Story nor Gary Sanchez won their league’s Rookie of the Year Award, but each of them probably got more ink than the respective winners, Corey Seager and Michael Fulmer, did. Dingers will do that.

Story, the Colorado Rockies’ shortstop, made his major league debut on April 4. He hit two homers that day. The next day he hit another. The day after that, another. The Rockies were off the next day, but in his fourth game he hit two more. He hit another in his sixth game to give him seven in the season’s first week. After that he slowed down, but finished April with 10 bombs and a slugging percentage of .696. The historical comparisons placed him in pretty lofty company, with his seven homers in his first six games putting him past Larry Walker, Mike Schmidt, and Willie Mays who had held the record with six each.

Story seemed to be on his way to the National League Rookie of the Year Award until a thumb injury ended his season in late July. When he went under the knife to fix it, he led the NL with 27 home runs, had posted 72 RBI and had a batting line of .272/.341/.567 in 415 plate appearances. The Rockies were at .500 at the time and were arguably in contention for a Wild Card birth. They’d finish the season by going 23-35 for a final record of 75-87.

Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez saw action in two big league games in a 2015 cup-of-coffee, and a single game in early May of this year, but didn’t make it to the majors for good until the Yankees’ 107th game of the season on August 3. He didn’t hit as many homers as Story did in either his first six games or in his entire rookie season, but he hit a ton in a shorter time overall. Indeed, by the time he played his 45th career game he had hit 19 homers, which set a major league record for the fastest to that total in history. Before that Wally Berger held the record with 17 homers in 45 games.

Not all fast-starting sluggers went on to great careers — famous flashes in the pan Sam Horn had 14 in his first 45 games and fellow Yankee Kevin Mass had 15 — but Sanchez did not appear to merely be taking advantage of pitcher mistakes or guessing luckily. He finished the 2016 season with a line of .299/.376/.657 with 20 homers in all and 42 driven in. He walked a good deal as well, suggesting that he’s no fluke by any stretch of the imagination.

As year-end honors tend to favor players who played full seasons, it makes sense that Michael Fulmer of the Tigers beat out Sanchez for the AL Rookie of the Year Award. And as Corey Seager had a better overall season, it was not surprising that he walked away with the NL Award, despite Story’s fast start. Heck, Seager had a good argument for the MVP Award, not just rookie honors.

But Sanchez and certainly got people talking. And that places them in our top-25 stories of 2016.

Umpire Cory Blaser made two atrocious calls in the top of the 11th inning

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The Astros walked off 3-2 winners in the bottom of the 11th inning of ALCS Game 2 against the Yankees. Carlos Correa struck the winning blow, sending a first-pitch fastball from J.A. Happ over the fence in right field at Minute Maid Park, ending nearly five hours of baseball on Sunday night.

Correa’s heroics were precipitated by two highly questionable calls by home plate umpire Cory Blaser in the top half of the 11th.

Astros reliever Joe Smith walked Edwin Encarnación with two outs, prompting manager A.J. Hinch to bring in Ryan Pressly. Pressly, however, served up a single to left field to Brett Gardner, putting runners on first and second with two outs. Hinch again came out to the mound, this time bringing Josh James to face power-hitting catcher Gary Sánchez.

James and Sánchez had an epic battle. Sánchez fell behind 0-2 on a couple of foul balls, proceeded to foul off five of the next six pitches. On the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Sánchez appeared to swing and miss at an 87 MPH slider in the dirt for strike three and the final out of the inning. However, Blaser ruled that Sánchez tipped the ball, extending the at-bat. Replays showed clearly that Sánchez did not make contact at all with the pitch. James then threw a 99 MPH fastball several inches off the plate outside that Blaser called for strike three. Sánchez, who shouldn’t have seen a 10th pitch, was upset at what appeared to be a make-up call.

The rest, as they say, is history. One pitch later, the Astros evened up the ALCS at one game apiece. Obviously, Blaser’s mistakes in a way cancel each other out, and neither of them caused Happ to throw a poorly located fastball to Correa. It is postseason baseball, however, and umpires are as much under the microscope as the players and managers. Those were two particularly atrocious judgments by Blaser.