How ALDS Game 5 completed Didi's evolution into the heart and soul of the young Yankees
CLEVELAND -- The day he was traded from Arizona to New York in December 2014, Didi Gregorius took on perhaps the hardest job in Major League Baseball: being the player to succeed Derek Jeter as the shortstop of the New York Yankees.
There were questions aplenty when he took over the spot, the most frequently asked wondering if the soon-to-be 25-year-old could be an everyday player, given that over the previous two seasons, the left-handed hitter had a .180 average and a sub-.500 OPS against southpaws.
And, of course, there was that big question of how Didi would handle the pressure. Playing in New York can be hard enough, but when you're replacing arguably the most iconic Yankee of the modern era, there's enough pressure to be had to turn the sturdiest lump of coal into a diamond.
"It just happened that after he played his long, successful career here in New York, I'm the guy to follow him up, and it was really amazing for me to get traded here," Gregorius said when asked about that thought in retrospect Wednesday night. "It's amazing for me to be in this organization and just being awesome with all these guys. Everybody's here helping each other. Everybody wants each other to be good, and I think that's the motto since I got here. First day, I was really comfortable with all these guys. I got a warm welcome from everybody. It just showed how together everybody is going to be."
No one's asking any of those questions now, because in three short seasons, Gregorius has gone from question mark to exclamation point, and consistently shines brighter than any diamond on the diamond.
"There's a lot of times guys put a label on a person without letting the person develop -- they always predict something before everything, like saying 'this guy can only play defense' or 'this guy can only play offense,'" Didi said. "But, you don't know how hard a guy works to get where he wants to be, to stay where he wants to be and to keep making adjustments every year to try to get better."
The numbers have gone up each of the last three years, but it may be 2017 where Gregorius fully matured into one of the sturdiest vertebrae in the Yankees' backbone. He missed the first four weeks of the season recovering from a shoulder injury suffered in the World Baseball Classic, but came back to set career highs in home runs, RBI, runs scored, batting average, slugging percentage and OPS, blossoming as an unlikely middle-of-the-order hitter when Joe Girardi had few other options.
"It's interesting. We put him in the cleanup slot because we had some injuries, we lost Hicks, Castro, and Holliday all at the same time," Girardi said Wednesday night. "We were trying to spread out left-handers and he seemed to thrive in that position; he became an RBI machine for us, and we've left him up in the order against these guys. I started thinking we need to separate our righties, but Didi's at-bats have been great all year. He drove in almost 90 runs and missed a month of the season. It's pretty remarkable the season that he's had for us."
None of that process mattered to Didi, who never changed his approach no matter where he hit.
"It's not easy to hit .300, or hit 30 homers; I didn't expect to hit 25 homers after missing a month," Gregorius said of his season, "but I'm playing the game. For me, I always believed in myself. There's always people that are going to doubt you, people that are going to do everything. At the end it's up to you how hard you want to work. If you keep making improvements, people see it, but you don't have to do everything for other people. For me, everything starts for myself. If I believe in myself, that I can be a good player, why am I going to change my mind? The way I look at it, I just try to be a really good player, try to take advantage of everything."
As huge as Didi's 25 regular-season home runs were, though, none of them were as big as any of the three he's hit so far this postseason. The first, in the Wild Card Game, quickly erased the 3-0 hole the Yankees were in after a half-inning, and the second and third gave the Yankees all the runs they would need to win Game 5 of the ALDS and complete the improbable series comeback.
Quite the impressive adjustment on the latter, considering Didi was 0-for-2 against Corey Kluber in Game 2, 0-for-5 in that game overall, and 1-for-13 in the first four games of the series.
"In the first at-bat, he threw me a really nasty cutter I swung and missed on, and when he tried to come in with another fastball, I ended up putting a really good swing on it," Gregorius said. "Then, my next at-bat, I was looking for the cutter, got it first pitch, and fouled it off; after that, he threw me inside again and I ended up putting a good swing on it and it went out."
He was all the Yankees needed offensively, but just to complete his night, it was also Didi who alertly turned a 6-6-3 double play in the fifth -- with the Yankees clinging to a one-run lead after the Indians had chased CC Sabathia -- to snuff out Cleveland's lone rally of the night.
"(Francisco) Lindor is the guy they want to come up in that situation, but we shifted up the middle a little, and (David Robertson) threw him a back-door cutter that made him hit it straight to me," Gregorius said. "I got a good hop, got to set my feet a little bit and ended up turning the double play."
Derek Jeter was nicknamed "Captain Clutch" for a reason, and as it seems, on Wednesday night, his successor completed the final step of his evolution into bona fide Yankee by reaching deep down inside for that little something extra.
"As a kid, I wanted to be a Major Leaguer, so I worked for it," Gregorius said. "Then, when you get here, you want to play in big situations. Now that I am here, in this unbelievable organization, it's the best, because everybody is united. Everybody is together, backing each other up. For me to be here, with this amazing young team we have, is just unbelievable."
Believe it, because Gregorius is here. And as big of a piece as he is in the team's backbone, Wednesday night may have been the moment he also succeeded Jeter as the heart and soul of these young Yankees.