NEW YORK -- When the ALDS began, there was speculation Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius could find himself on the bench. The team's longtime shortstop struggled in his return from Tommy John surgery this season, hitting .238/.276/.441 in 82 regular season games. It was easily his worst season as a Yankee.
"The game's hard. Hitting's hard. These guys are really good," manager Aaron Boone said prior to ALDS Game 2 (NYY 8, MIN 2). "I still maintain that the best is yet to come from Didi, and I know he's going to have some big swings for us moving forward ... Sometimes it just takes one at-bat, one swing to kind of turn it, and I believe that's what's in there for Didi still."
That one swing came Saturday afternoon. With the Yankees already leading 3-0, Gregorius cranked a third-inning grand slam against Twins reliever Tyler Duffey to break the game open. The Yankee Stadium crowd demanded a curtain call.
"I think after he got that one base hit down the third base line (in the second inning), we were all kind of in the dugout saying, 'OK, he's going to go on a roll here,'" Aaron Judge said following Game 2. "When he came up there with the bases loaded, Dellin Betances said 'he's going grand salami right here.' A couple pitches in, he did it."
The Yankees built their seven-run rally in the third inning in two-strike counts. Giancarlo Stanton lifted a long sacrifice fly to center in a 2-2 count. Gleyber Torres lined an RBI single to left in an 0-2 count. Gary Sanchez reached on a two-strike hit-by-pitch. Then Gregorius sent a 1-2 fastball into the second deck in right field.
"I mean, everybody goes through ups and downs, but the confidence level always got to stay up," Gregorius said following Game 2. "So for me, just focus on my job and try to get better. That's all I can do. People are always going to say something if you do good or bad. For me, it's just go out there, play the ball, and try to get better."
Gregorius went 0 for 3 with a walk in Game 1 and finished the season in an ugly 3-for-23 (.130) slide. The Yankees stuck with him in the postseason -- the alternative is putting Torres at short, DJ LeMahieu at second, and Luke Voit at first -- for three reasons. One, he's a great defender at a premium position. Two, they think he's significantly better than what he's shown.
And three, Gregorius has a history of performing well in big games. He clobbered a game-tying three-run home run in the first inning of the 2017 AL Wild Card Game, and later added two home runs against Corey Kluber in the decisive Game 5 of the 2017 ALDS. In a big spot, the Yankees are comfortable with Gregorius at the plate.
"It doesn't surprise me at all." Boone said. "I expect this from Didi. Just when you think you've got him down, he's got a big swing on him. He got on what looked like a pitch up, maybe up and out of the strike zone, and obviously a no-doubter and a real dagger at that point. Really excited for him because I know how hard he's worked behind the scenes to kind of get it going, and obviously, he's very important for us."
The Yankees won 103 games this year despite not having Gregorius the first two months of the season, and not getting much from him once he did return from Tommy John surgery. The Yankees are at their most dangerous with a healthy and productive Gregorius though, and in ALDS Game 2, we saw he can still be an impact player in the postseason stage.
"He's one of the leaders of this team," Judge added. "No matter what the stats say, he's always going to be a leader, he's always going to come through in big situations when you need him. That's why he's in this lineup. That's why he's in the postseason. He's a killer. He's showing it right now."