Without Didi Gregorius playing shortstop behind him, C.C. Sabathia might have allowed three hits to the Texas Rangers, instead of just a single dribbler that traveled all of about 45 feet, during his six-inning stint on Sunday.
Without Gregorius in their lineup, the Yankees might have scored just five runs rather than seven, which could have rendered Sonny Gray’s latest bullpen struggle as more of a crisis than the minor annoyance it turned out to be.
And without Gregorius on their roster for the past three-plus seasons, the Yankees might still be wringing their hands over replacing Derek Jeter.
“If he wouldn’t have come in and did what he did the last three years, we’d still be talking about Jeet and how we need leadership and all that,” Sabathia said of Gregorius. “But he’s erased all that.”
The Yankees very well may have won with someone else at shortstop on Sunday, but it’s hard to imagine one player making as many impact plays in as many different capacities as Gregorius did in the Yankees 7-2 victory over the Rangers at Yankee Stadium. It was the Yankees’ third win in the four-game series and their sixth in the seven games since they were swept by the Red Sox last weekend in Boston.
“He did it all,” Sabathia said of Gregorius. “He does it all. He’s awesome.”
Gregorius’s first impressive play ended the first inning, as he ranged far to his right to backhand Elvis Andrus’s grounder and made a perfect throw across his body to first baseman Luke Voit. However, that play was just the warm-up act for the fifth inning, when Gregorius again had to move far to his right, sliding on one knee this time, to spear a grounder and throw out Delino DeShields, one of the league’s faster runners, at first.
“That was one of the better plays I’ve ever seen at shortstop, especially with who was running,” Sabathia said.
Gregorius wasn’t awarding himself any style points, but he was pleased with the outcome.
“I started laughing when I saw the video because there was some awkward movement going on in there,” Gregorius said. “But I got the out, you know? So I’d have to say yes, it was a good play.”
But Gregorius was hardly finished. In the bottom of the inning, his two-run home run, a line drive into the lower right-field seats, capped a five-run inning that broke the game open. It was his 21st home run of the season, third-best on the team behind Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, and his 68 runs batted in trail only Stanton, who started the Yankees’ scoring in the first inning with his 30th home run, a solo shot.
“He’s just kind of a blue-collar, lunch pail type of player,” Manager Aaron Boone said. “He’s tough, he’s able to play through things, and there’s an ‘I want the ball hit to me’ feeling about him.”
After an April in which it appeared he might be headed for an M.V.P.-caliber season — he batted .327 with 10 home runs and 30 R.B.I. in the Yankees’ first 28 games — Gregorius nose-dived in May, batting just .149 with a single home run and five R.B.I. Around Memorial Day, Gregorius’s average had dipped to .229. But over the past two months, he has climbed steadily back: By the end of Sunday’s game he was back up to .270, third-best in the Yankees’ everyday lineup.
But most impressive to the Yankees has been Gregorius’s defense, which never faltered even when his bat went temporarily dead.
“What we saw today is what he’s been doing all year for us: saving pitchers’ pitches, getting outs that maybe some people can’t make,” catcher Austin Romine said. “He’s one of the elite shortstops in this game. When it’s hit to Didi it’s pretty much an out every time. He’s fun to watch.”
Following Jeter — a 14-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove winner, runner-up for the 2006 American League Most Valuable Player Award and one of the most popular Yankees in recent history — would have been a tough act for any player to follow. And when Gregorius was acquired in a three-way trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Detroit Tigers that cost them pitcher Shane Greene, many considered him to be a stopgap, holding down a spot for Jeter’s real successor, perhaps someone like Manny Machado.
And Gregorius’s first month in pinstripes seemed to support that belief, marred as it was by fielding errors and baserunning mistakes.
But over the past three seasons, Gregorius has emerged not only as a mainstay in the infield and the lineup — he has hit cleanup 22 times in the batting order, more than anyone but Judge — but also as something of a mentor to the Yankees young infielders, a role also formerly assumed by Jeter.
On Sunday, the rookie third baseman Miguel Andujar committed two errors and might well have had a third had Voit not dug out an errant throw at first.
“I always talk to him,” said Gregorius, who added his advice to Andujar this time would be: “Everybody makes errors, but it’s how fast you let it go.”
Sabathia (7-4, 3.32), who won his first game since July 4, held the Rangers to just Joey Gallo’s infield roller over six innings, walking three and striking out seven. The victory did not move the needle in the American League East race; Boston beat the Baltimore Orioles, 4-1, to retain a nine-and-a-half-game lead.
But that did not lessen Sabathia’s admiration for the game his shortstop played on Sunday, or his appreciation of Gregorius’s importance to the Yankees in the post-Jeter era.
“I think since he got here, taking over for who he took over for, and being able to have three 20-home run seasons in a row, it’s just incredible,” Sabathia said. “I think what he’s done to turn around this team in the rebuilding process, he’s been the number one key.”