Dukes shows promise on big stage
Rookie's first home run comes on Opening Day in Bronx
NEW YORK -- Elijah Dukes made the most of his Major League debut on Monday.
Playing in baseball's most famous arena, the Devil Rays rookie started in center field and did not wilt under the immense aura of Yankee Stadium.
After drawing a walk in his first at-bat, Dukes homered his next time up, registering his first Major League hit in his first official at-bat.
"It [felt like a home run], but I didn't know for sure if it was going until it started coming down," Dukes said. "I knew I at least had a double."
Dukes might not have been convinced, but all of the 55,035 fans in attendance had a pretty good idea that the 1-1 offering from Yankees starter Carl Pavano would sail over the 408-foot mark in center field. After hitting the side of the wall, the resulting ricochet against the stands added an exclamation point.
Dukes became only the second Rays player to homer in his first official Major League at-bat, joining former pitcher Esteban Yan, who homered against the Mets on June 5, 2000. Dukes also became the third player in Rays history to homer in his Major League debut. Brent Abernathy first accomplished the feat on June 5, 2001, at Boston, as did fellow Rays outfielder Delmon Young, who turned the trick on Aug. 29, 2006, in Chicago.
Dukes came close to hitting another home run when he flied to deep right field to end the sixth.
Not only did Dukes shine at the plate, he showed his skills in the field, too. With the Yankees threatening in the sixth inning, Bobby Abreu hit a ball to deep center field. Dukes gave chase and managed to run down the shot with a backhanded catch. When he turned back toward the infield, Melky Cabrera slipped while on his way to third base from second. Dukes threw to shortstop Ben Zobrist, who made a successful relay to Upton at second for the inning-ending double play.
Dukes' debut was "very good," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He works good at-bats. That's one of the things we knew about him in the Minor Leagues, that he worked good at-bats. He's got a real flat swing and can really backspin the baseball, and that's what he really did. The one he hit to right field was pretty good, too. But Dukes had a good first day. I thought he handled himself pretty well."
Dukes said he had a "great feeling" making his debut.
"Playing in Spring Training kind of prepared me to handle that pressure of playing against guys, future Hall of Famers, All-Stars, stuff like that," Dukes said. "It's always a great feeling to be on the field competing against the world's best."
Dukes finished his day by facing Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, whom many feel is the all-time best at his position. He struck Dukes out, but Rivera didn't dampen the confidence of the 22-year-old.
"I kind of got a little pumped up and got a little bit out of my game, swinging at balls out of the zone," Dukes said. "But I'll be ready next time."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.