David Dermer/Associated Press
CLEVELAND — He speaks four languages, paints and sketches on road trips and spent two weeks last January giving baseball clinics in three different New Zealand cities.
Now Didi Gregorius is finishing the year administering another clinic, this one for the New York Yankees in October.
Are they really doing this? The New York Yankees? Again?
Smash! Gregorius sank his bat into a Corey Kluber 94 mph fastball in the first inning and stunned the Cleveland Indians with a solo homer.
Ka-boom! Gregorius whipped that bat around again in the third and launched a Kluber curveball into darned near the same spot in right field for a two-run homer.
Goodbye, Cleveland. Hello…what, exactly?
The Yankees dispatched the Indians 5-2, sprayed champagne late into the night, completed an historic and incredible comeback from a two-game hole, booked their place into the American League Championship Series opposite the Houston Astros—Game 1 is Friday night—and dreams now are growing bigger by the hour.
“At one point, the ’96 team was inexperienced and hadn’t won before,”New York general manager Brian Cashman was saying in a hallway just off the Yankees’ clubhouse. “It’s hard to compare. You take every one when they come, you’re in it to win it, and this team’s gotten us this far and hopefully will get a little further.”
The Baby Bombers are growing, the veterans are leading and the Bronx is getting noisy again. These Yankees are so skilled they’ve even picked up their manager. Joe Girardi has pointed that out now a few times, and as this division series shifted back to Cleveland’s Progressive Field for Game 5, it was hard not to think of the disaster New York left behind in Game 2.
But if Girardi’s failure to ask for an instant replay was lurking somewhere in the shadows, it was wiped clean by the end of this night.
Start with Gregorius, who has played in more MLB regular-season games (635) as a native of The Netherlands than any man this side of Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven (699). Cashman acquired him from Arizona in a three-way deal that also included Detroit before the 2015 season as a replacement for icon Derek Jeter.
He’s shown remarkable staying power.
“You don’t hear much about Jeet other than him owning the Marlins now,” quipped veteran CC Sabathia, whose 4.1 solid innings (two runs, five hits, nine strikeouts) pointed the Yanks in the right direction. “If not for what Didi’s done, people would still be talking about him playing shortstop for the Yankees.
David Dermer/Associated Press
“You’ve gotta give Didi all the credit.”
Not only did Gregorius slam two Game 5 homers, but it was his three-run, first-inning blast against the Minnesota Twins that keyed New York’s wild-card comeback.
“I think back to a couple of years ago when we first got him and everybody in the stands every night was chanting Derek Jeter’s name, and, obviously, nowadays you don’t hear that near as often,” leadoff man Brett Gardner said. “On both sides of the ball, not just defensively but offensively, he’s one of the best shortstops in the game.”
It’s not that Jeter will ever be forgotten in New York, but, hey, Gregorius’ staying power has been remarkable. And he’s getting better every year.
Funny thing, Cashman said, is that the Yankees scouts liked Gregorius better than he did as Jeter played out his final days and the club zeroed in hard on not necessarily a replacement—because who could ever replace Jeter in Yankees lore?—but someone to at least plug the position for a while. As they analyzed the options, Cashman was swayed.
Then, he almost couldn’t get a deal done.
“I couldn’t get it done straight up with Arizona,” Cashman said. “Dave Stewart [Arizona’s GM at the time] is a close friend of mine, and I tried 10 different ways to do business with the Arizona Diamondbacks direct, and Dave was like, sorry, I just don’t see it. He rejected every proposal I made, and I made a ton.
“So finally I called Dave Dombrowski in Detroit [the Tigers’ former GM and now the president of baseball operations for Boston]. I knew Dave coveted [pitcher] Shane Greene. I didn’t want to give up Shane Greene, but I said, ‘Dave, if you can get Didi Gregorius from Arizona for me, I’ll give you Shane Greene.’ And then within 72 hours he’s like, I got him. He matched up, I couldn’t, and we had a three-way.”
It may go down as Cashman’s finest move. The Yankees sure appreciate it.
“To be able to come in and do what he’s done over last few years, we’re very lucky to have him,” Gardner said. “He’s a hell of a ballplayer, and he’s a huge reason why we’re moving on.”
So too is Gardner, the quintessential leadoff man who ground 34 pitches out of the Cleveland Indians over five at-bats Thursday night. He struck out on the 12th pitch of his fifth-inning duel with reliever Andrew Miller, but he stroked what wound up being a two-run single on the 12th pitch he saw in the ninth inning.
It was an epic at-bat. It gave the Yankees some breathing room, and, like Cashman’s trade for Gregorius, it exhibited the sort of persistence and doggedness that key this team. Yes, of course, the Yankees are supremely talented too, but talent only goes so far.
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And the Yankees needed everything they could squeeze from the Old Salts like Sabathia, Gardner, Gregorius, David Robertson, Aroldis Chapman and the rest because the Baby Bombers are finding October a difficult month to traverse. Aaron Judge struck out 16 times in 20 at-bats in this division series, and Gary Sanchez fanned 10 times in 23 at-bats. Greg Bird scuffled too.
But they advanced, and, as Cashman said, “Reggie [Jackson] always talked about how when you have a bat in your hand, you can change the story.”
Now one of the final two teams standing in the AL, you bet some of those slugging Baby Bombers will be looking to change the story, pronto.
And while they do, the Yankees have every reason to believe they can author more of their own rich, rich story.
Are they here one year early? Two years early?
Who’s counting? Nobody in this clubhouse.
“I think things have come together,” Cashman said. “Arriving early implies some guarantee in the future, and I’ve been around the block long enough to know that, listen, you just seize the moment. That’s what we tried to do by reinforcing this team in June and July and seeing how far it would take us, and hopefully it would stay healthy, and so far, it’s served us well.
“But in terms of arriving early, I restate: It doesn’t guarantee anything in 2018 and beyond. We’re excited about our talent, but you’ve got to keep them healthy, keep them productive, and that’s a neat trick in its own self.”
They will look to perform that next neat trick Friday in Minute Maid Park. Stay tuned, and don’t take your eyes off this bunch.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.