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Didi Gregorius lighting it up in the field, too

The Yankees' Didi Gregorius, second from left, celebrates

The Yankees' Didi Gregorius, second from left, celebrates his home run with teammates during the 10th inning against the Angels, Friday, April 27, 2018, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) Credit: AP/Jae C. Hong

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Andrelton Simmons will win most straw polls taken among scouts and talent evaluators as the best defensive shortstop in the game.

In the home clubhouse here Friday night, though, Simmons said that for all the talk about Didi Gregorius’ start at the plate this season — which the Angels shortstop raved about — don’t sleep on his countryman’s defense.

“He’s exceptional at short, too,” said Simmons, who won his third Gold Glove last season. “Personally, I don’t see much difference in what we do defensively.”

Simmons and Gregorius have a long history, of course. The pair met when Simmons was 7 and Gregorius was 6. (They’re both 28, with Simmons about nine months older.)

Simmons said they met shortly after Gregorius moved from the Netherlands to the smallish island of Curaçao — population a tick under 160,000 — as teammates on a youth league team called Marchena Hardware.

Gregorius wanted to play shortstop but Simmons, a defensive standout even at that age, already was entrenched there, so Gregorius played second.

A scenario similar to that played out in the ensuing years in various international events, though in the most recent World Baseball Classic in 2017, both saw time at shortstop for an infield-rich Netherlands team that also had Xander Bogaerts, Jonathan Schoop and Jurickson Profar.

“Honestly, whenever we played together, you could have thrown either of us at short,” Simmons said. “We do the same job.”

Simmons, who seems to have a streak of modesty similar to the one Gregorius displays daily, might be selling himself a bit short. After all, more than a few long-time scouts will say that in the field, Simmons might well be in the same league as Ozzie Smith.

But several talent evaluators said that gap between Simmons and Gregorius isn’t an extreme one, certainly not as extreme as it once was.

“He’s gotten dramatically better each year,” one said of Gregorius. “And it’s all the tools [in the field]. Range, arm strength, accuracy.”

A play in the sixth inning Friday night was the latest example. Zack Cozart sent a sharp grounder that seemed destined to be a single to leftfield. Gregorius, however, ranged to his right, backhanded the ball deep in the hole and rifled a low strike to Neil Walker at first to nip Cozart for the third out of the inning.

Still, the work at the plate of the lefthanded-hitting Gregorius has commanded the headlines, and for good reason. From the time he signed with the Reds in 2007 and came up through the Diamondbacks’ organization before getting traded to the Yankees before the 2015 season to replace a guy named Derek Jeter, the scouting reports basically could be boiled down to some form of this: promising fielder, probably won’t hit much.

Instead, it’s been a steady climb in that department.

After a rough first five weeks with the Yankees in 2015 — a stretch in which Gregorius struggled at the plate, on the bases and in the field — he rebounded to finish with a .265/.318/.370 slash line, nine homers and 56 RBIs in 155 games.

And that was the low point.

Gregorius posted career bests in homers (20) and RBIs (70) in 2016, then shattered those marks last season, putting together a .287/.318/.478 slash line with 25 homers and 87 RBIs.

His performance this season — Gregorius entered Saturday leading the majors in homers (tied with Mike Trout at 10), RBIs (30), batting average (.368) and slugging percentage (.828) — has his teammates in a constant state of head-shaking. It also has him gaining increasing mentions with the super-elite shortstops in the American League, the Astros’ Carlos Correa and the Indians’ Francisco Lindor.

Entering Saturday night, Gregorius was 11-for-24 with five homers and 12 RBIs in his last six games. “Oh my God, he’s amazing,” Luis Severino said after Gregorius went 3-for-5 in Friday night’s 4-3 victory, including a long homer to right in the 10th inning that proved to be the game-winner. “I don’t know how he’s doing it. He’s hitting everything.”

Aaron Judge, the recipient of those kinds of remarks much of last season, laughed.

“Feels like you guys ask me that every night,” Judge said after another how-about-Didi-so-far question. “And it never gets old answering, man. It’s just impressive what he’s doing.”

Just ask anyone not named Gregorius.

“You still have to work to try to get better,” Gregorius said. “You can’t be satisfied, otherwise the game will pass you by.”

Simmons, with whom Gregorius works out in the offseason in Curaçao, spoke before watching his close friend beat his team.

“Hope he slows down for a couple days,” Simmons said, not sounding at all hopeful that Gregorius would.

Simmons leaned back in his chair, pondering how it started for Gregorius in New York, tasked with the unenviable task of replacing Jeter.

Did that ever weigh on Gregorius? “He never told me it did, but I would imagine,” Simmons said. “It’s only natural. Put anybody in New York replacing one of the biggest names in baseball and with the New York fans, it would be tough for whoever it was to get started. But I’m glad he got over that little hump. And he’s never looked back ever since.”

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