Jonathan Loaisiga arrived early at Yankee Stadium on Friday for the biggest game of his professional baseball career. But it was not to pore over scouting reports, watch extra video of opposing hitters or even to tuck into the big league food spread.
Instead, he settled into a comfortable chair and watched a remarkable World Cup match between Spain and Portugal. A few hours later, Loaisiga stood on a field in front of 45,112 fans and delivered a stunning performance of his own.
Pitching in his major-league debut at 23, Loaisiga (pronounced Lo-AYE-siga) threw five scoreless innings to lead the Yankees to a 5-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays and establish himself as yet another Yankees prospect to watch.
Demonstrating impressive poise, Loaisiga limited the Rays to three hits and four walks and struck out six as the crowd cheered all his big pitches.
“To me, it didn’t feel like it was his first start,” said Gary Sanchez, who not only caught Loaisiga’s mini-gem, but also had a bases-clearing double in the eighth inning to blow the game open. “He was amazing.”
Loaisiga threw 91 pitches, 57 of them strikes, and did not allow a hit until the fourth inning, a dozen batters into the game. He became only the seventh Yankees pitcher since 1908 to record at least five scoreless innings in his first game, and the first since Sam Militello in 1992. He is also the first Yankees starter to record a win in his debut since Masahiro Tanaka in 2014.
In addition, Loaisiga became the 15th player, and the 11th pitcher, born in Nicaragua to reach the major leagues. The most famous was Dennis Martinez, nicknamed El Presidente, who pitched for 23 seasons in the majors and recorded a perfect game for the Montreal Expos in 1991.
Loaisiga’s nickname is not quite so elegant. He said that after he had signed professionally, teammates called him Jonny Lasagna, which he seems to accept with a shrug.
After Loaisiga watched the afternoon World Cup game, he eventually got dressed and began his pregame warm-ups. He said that as he made his way to the bullpen he noticed flags from his country waving in the stands. But even with all the excitement and pressure from such a momentous occasion, he said he never felt nervous.
Composure, along with good stuff and impeccable command, is one of the key elements of Loaisiga’s repertoire. It shone in his debut, just as it has in the lower levels of the minor leagues.
Before Friday, Loaisiga had not pitched above Class AA, skipping Class AAA for Yankee Stadium.
“My teammates told me to just be calm and do what I’ve been doing down there,” he said through an interpreter.
The Yankees have had notable success this season when calling up rookies, including Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and the pitcher Domingo German, who won Thursday night’s game. Loaisiga started the year at Class A Tampa, and after four starts there was promoted to Class AA Trenton. In 10 combined starts, he was 6-1 with a 3.00 earned run average.
Above all, he embodied the Yankees’ organization-wide message to their players that the individual dictates what the team does with him.
“Do everything you possibly can and force us to pick you when necessary,” General Manager Brian Cashman said, “and that’s what he’s done.”
Loaisiga walked the first batter he faced, Matt Duffy, then struck out Jake Bauers and got out of the inning with a double-play ball. Flashing a fastball that settled at 97 and 96 miles per hour much of the game, Loaisiga struck out the side in the second inning. His biggest test came in the fourth, when he loaded the bases while the Yankees were clinging to a 1-0 lead. But he struck out Christian Arroyo with a devastating 84-mile-per-hour slider to end the threat.
“He buckled down and made a pitch and got a huge out,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said.
Pitching against Tampa Bay did not hurt. The Rays have scored only 276 runs, which is third from the bottom of the American League. Against them, Loaisiga had perhaps his best outing statistically of the year. In each of his eight minor-league starts, he gave up at least one run, and this time he blanked a major league team.
For all his specific accomplishments, including his first win and his first strikeout, Loaisiga said he would always remember the full experience of a terrific day and night.
“Being in the big leagues and pitching here,” he said, “at the cathedral of baseball.”