By BEN WALKER, AP Baseball Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — There were plenty of times when the New York Yankees wondered when Greg Bird would play again.
This year? Next season? Ever?

“We weren’t sure about him,” manager Joe Girardi admitted.

Bird’s time finally came Saturday, when he reached base three times in his long-awaited return to the lineup and helped the Yankees beat the Seattle Mariners 6-3.

Bird singled, walked twice and scored in his first game since May 1. The young first baseman has been hobbled by ankle and foot woes — after his hit, the Yankee Stadium sound system played the theme song from ’70s sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

“It’s fun to be back in the stadium,” Bird said. “It’s exciting to be part of it.”

Said Girardi, after the win: “I think he can have a big impact.”

Jacoby Ellsbury homered and drove in four runs and Sonny Gray kept up his streak of impressive starts in this matchup of playoff contenders.

The Yankees bounced back from an 11-inning loss in the opener of a season-long 10-game homestand. Seattle dropped to 5-3 on its 12-game, four-city trip that covers 7,500 miles.

“Not a lot going on today, obviously last night kind of an emotional win,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “We just didn’t get much going offensively and a lot had to do with Sonny Gray.”

Bird was activated from the 60-day disabled list after a strong Triple-A rehab assignment.

The 24-year-old hit eight homers in spring training, tied for the most in the majors, but fouled a ball off his right ankle shortly before opening day. He then started off 6 for 60 with the Yankees and was put on the DL.

Bird had a bone removed from his right foot during his recovery.

“It’s been a long interesting, unique journey,” he said.

Bird got off to a strong start as a rookie in 2015, hitting 11 home runs in 46 games. But his path stalled when shoulder surgery caused him to miss the entire 2016 season.

This year, his big hitting in the Grapefruit League was wiped out by setbacks that threatened to turn his whole season into a big bust. Now, he’s ready to break loose.

“I feel fresh,” Bird said. “I haven’t really played a whole lot.”

Bird walked his first time up and tried to score from second on Ellsbury’s RBI single. He was nailed at the plate, but said it was his slide left him out, not any physical problems.

“I was trying to slip my hand in. I figured that was my best shot. Replays kind of changed that a little bit, so I was trying to be sneaky.”

Ellsbury hit a three-run homer and an RBI single. Relegated to a role of a fourth outfielder during an injury-slowed season, he connected off Yovani Gallardo (5-10).

Girardi praised Ellsbury’s work ethic despite diminished time, saying, “It’s not easy when you’ve been the player Jake’s been.”

Gray (8-8) went seven innings and allowed one run on three hits, including a homer by Carlos Ruiz. It was the 11th straight start Gray hasn’t permitted more than two earned runs, the best string by anyone in the majors this year. Five of those games have come since he was traded from Oakland to the Yankees on July 31.

Gray struck out nine. In his previous outing, he threw five innings against Boston in his first career appearance without fanning anyone.
Starlin Castro hit a two-run single in the seventh for a 6-1 lead.

Kyle Seager and Guillermo Heredia had RBI singles in the Seattle eighth. Pinch-hitter Robinson Cano grounded out against Tommy Kahnle to end the inning.
Dellin Betances pitched the ninth for his 10th save.

DILL, NOT DULL

Gray pitched with “Pickles” on the back of his jersey. That was part of Players Weekend, where nicknames and colorful gear were encouraged by Major League Baseball to help attract younger fans.

Gray does like pickles, but the name came from his teammates in Oakland — they noticed he often seemed to pitch on days when the A’s wore their alternate green uniforms.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mariners: Cano didn’t start for the second straight game because of tightness in his left hamstring. He played second base after batting. “Robbie, I think, is getting better,” Servais said. “We’ll see if we can get him in tomorrow and go from there.”

Yankees: With Bird at first, Chase Headley shifted from 1B back to start at 3B for the first time since the Yankees traded for Todd Frazier. Headley threw away one grounder.

UP NEXT

Mariners: LHP Andrew Albers (2-0, 3.60 ERA) makes his third start for Seattle. The 31-year-old was 12-3 in Triple-A when Atlanta traded him this month for cash.

Yankees: RHP Masahiro Tanaka (9-10, 4.86) is 0-6 with an 11.81 ERA in seven day starts this year and 9-4 with a 3.24 ERA in 17 games at night. He makes his 100th career start in the majors Sunday and is 48-26 so far.
___
More AP baseball coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

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