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When the going gets tough, DJ LeMahieu gets going

DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees connects on an

DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees connects on an eighth-inning single against the Mariners at Yankee Stadium on Thursday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Pitchers often talk about “locking in” a little extra with runners in scoring position.

The same, of course, can be said for hitters, and when DJ LeMahieu has been at the plate, a quick glance at the numbers shows who overwhelmingly has come out ahead in those battles.

The infielder, signed to mostly ho-hum reviews from the Yankees' fan base during the offseason, entered Friday’s game against the Rays a remarkable 15-for-29 (.517) with 16 RBIs with runners in scoring position this season. Only Andrew Benintendi of the Red Sox, who was hitting .522, has been better. LeMahieu was 9-for-19 with runners in scoring position and two outs.

“Maybe a little bit more focus, but I try to have good at-bats no matter,” he said a day after delivering a walk-off single to beat the Mariners on Tuesday at the Stadium. “But I just think naturally you just focus a little bit more. I think everyone does. Just fortunate to come through with some hits at big times right now.”

The righthanded-hitting LeMahieu, signed as a free agent to a two-year, $24 million deal, has done that consistently this season, regardless of whether men are on base or not. He entered Friday hitting .344 with an .849 OPS.

Aaron Boone has said all season that LeMahieu is “just a good hitter,” mentioning before Friday night’s game that his ability to use “the entire field” and generally not go outside of the strike zone benefits him during tough at-bats with runners in scoring position.

“He does a good job of understanding the strike zone. He controls it pretty well,” Boone said. “He can handle a lot of different pitches, and when you spray the ball around, it usually gives you a chance to have success in those situations where guys are really a little more locked in on trying to execute a pitch. He can handle a lot of different pitches within the strike zone and that, coupled with hitting it to all fields, usually ups your chances … He’s just a very versatile, accomplished hitter that’s going to put the ball in play.”

Versatile in the field, too.

LeMahieu signed with the Yankees expecting to move around, primarily between second base — where he won three Gold Gloves while with the Rockies — shortstop and maybe third base on occasion. With the bevy of injuries the Yankees have suffered, LeMahieu has played those positions and more, even making his second career start at first base this week. He has appeared in 25 games at second, 12 at third and two at first.

“I saw a good amount of him over the years and kind of always admired his game,” Boone said of how familiar he was with LeMahieu before this season. “One of those pros' pros. Really good defensively, runs the bases well, a tough out at the plate. He’s just a really solid player. Felt like we knew we were getting that [during the offseason] and he’s more than delivered.”

The 6-4, 215-pound LeMahieu is a physical presence in the clubhouse, though not much of a verbal one. He is quiet but not in an aloof way, and it didn’t take him long to become popular among his teammates. After seven season with the Rockies, the transition to New York and the Yankees could not have been smoother, obviously not always the case with new players in the Bronx.

“It couldn’t be working out any better,” LeMahieu said. “I’m just in a good place. Obviously, this team is special, so it’s a great opportunity.”

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