Gregorius steps out of big shadow
Jeter’s replacement takes starring role in Yanks’ playoff run.
CLEVELAND — Yankees general manager Brian Cashman never entertained the idea of replacing Derek Jeter when the Yankees’ captain retired at the end of the 2014 season. The best a general manager could do in such an impossible situation was find another shortstop, and maybe, over time, that player would make everyone miss their beloved No. 2 a little less.
But no one could have predicted Didi Gregorius eventually nudging aside Jeter as he did during this breakout season, and that continued into October, with Gregorius hitting home runs in his first two at-bats off Indians ace Corey Kluber in Wednesday’s 5-2 series clinching victory at Progressive Field.
Gregorius became only the ninth player to go deep twice in a sudden-death playoff game, and the third Yankee, joining Yogi Berra (1956 World Series) and Jason Giambi (2003 ALCS). As instrumental as Gregorius has been to the Yankees’ surprising 91-win season, stepping up on the playoff stage takes him to another level — at least to an elevation that brings him into the Jeter conversation.
Jeter helped the Yankees to five rings, including four in the first five years of his career. Gregorius, 27, is not likely to attain the immortality granted by a dynastic stretch such as that one. But he’s able to do just about everything else from the shortstop position, with slick fielding skills, a cannon arm and an offensive prowess that seems to grow by the day.
Gregorius shocked Kluber in Wednesday’s winner-take-all showdown, hammering a 1-2 fastball over the rightfield wall in the first inning.
As a momentum shifter, the homer was on par with the tying three-run homer Gregorius crushed in the wild-card win over the Twins, albeit with a different soundtrack. On that Oct. 2 night, Gregorius transformed the demoralized Bronx into giddy bedlam, rallying the restless crowd and sparking the Yankees to the eventual 8-4 victory.
Gregorius slugged 25 home runs during the regular season, a record for a Yankees shortstop, edging Jeter’s mark. And it’s not as if Joe Girardi was hiding him. Gregorius started 42 games in the cleanup spot, also the most for a Yankee at his position. From 1913 to 2015, a Yankees shortstop hit in the No. 4 slot only 28 times.
Girardi moved him up to third for the back end of the Division Series, so he could break up the right-handed sluggers, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. In the meantime, Gregorius struggled, and was only 1 for 13 heading into Wednesday night. That improved in a hurry.
After what the Indians’ faithful must have thought was a lucky punch, Grego- rius did even more damage in the third inning, thanks to Gardner’s opening single. One out later, Gregorius fouled off a 91-mph cut fastball, then crushed an 87-mph curveball to the same locale as the first homer, only 5 feet shorter. As the Yankees went crazy in the dugout, the Indians had to be wondering how things began so wrong for them and shaken by who was the architect of Kluber’s destruction.
Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius (right) became only the ninth player to hit two home runs in a sudden-death playoff game, and the third Yankee, joining Yogi Berra (1956 World Series) and Jason Giambi (2003 ALCS).