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Gio Urshela so much better than the Yankees ever could have expected

Gio Urshela #29 of the Yankees celebrates after

Gio Urshela #29 of the Yankees celebrates after hitting a three-run home run in the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 28, 2021 in Baltimore. Credit: Getty Images/Greg Fiume

BALTIMORE — This was the latest in the meteoric rise of Gio Urshela, one that began in 2019.

"Glad I had that sitting over there tonight as a weapon, obviously," Aaron Boone said late Friday night.

Boone spoke after Urshela, held out of Friday’s lineup with lingering left knee soreness, pinch hit for Tyler Wade and delivered a go-ahead three-run homer in the seventh inning of the Yankees’ 5-4 victory over the Orioles.

Almost no one, Urshela included, would have predicted a little more than two years ago that the third baseman would be described that way — as a "weapon."

With the glove, maybe. With the bat? No chance.

But Urshela has become that in his Yankees tenure, which began inauspiciously enough in spring training 2019. He was a non-roster invitee, brought in strictly as infield depth to be, at best, stored in the minor leagues in case of emergency.

Which is exactly what happened.

Miguel Andujar, the 2018 American League Rookie of the Year runner-up, suffered a torn labrum early in the 2019 season. He went to the injured list April 1, and the Yankees, already stretched thin that season because of a slew of spring training injuries, were forced to call up Urshela.

If nothing else, they knew he would stop the ball.

But Urshela, who came to the Yankees from Toronto in a hardly-noticed trade for cash considerations on Aug. 4, 2018, and then was re-signed to a minor-league deal in the offseason, has blossomed into so much more than that.

This despite starting the 2019 season with a career batting average of .225, eight homers and a .589 OPS, all accumulated in three seasons with Cleveland and Toronto.

But when Urshela replaced Andujar, he came out of the gate hitting and never really stopped, finishing 2019 with a .314 batting average, 21 homers and an .889 OPS — all career highs — in 132 games.

And he still hasn’t stopped.

Urshela hit .298 with six homers and an .858 OPS in 43 games in last year’s COVID-19 60-game season. Entering Saturday night, he was hitting .298 with five homers and an .829 OPS in 32 games this season.

The fifth of those homers came in a nine-pitch at-bat against Orioles righthander Travis Lakins Sr. After falling behind 1-and-2, Urshela fouled off four straight 2-and-2 pitches before crushing a cutter to right-center to turn a 4-2 deficit into a 5-4 lead.

"That’s what he’s done his whole career is had big at-bats," an admiring Aaron Judge said. "He battled off some tough pitches. That was what we needed, especially [because] a situation like that’s tough, coming off the bench, you haven’t been in the game, haven’t been in the flow seeing pitches. But a guy like Gio, he’s always locked in and ready to roll. He was able to barrel one up and give us the lead. That was the swing of the night right there."

For Urshela, who extended his on-base streak to 22 games, equaling a career best, it has always been about confidence — confidence that can be built only by opportunity.

Going back to his breakthrough 2019, Urshela has never expressed surprise at his success at the plate, maintaining only that he needed at-bats to attain it.

"I don't know if I'd say expect it or didn't expect it," former Cleveland teammate Corey Kluber said of the offensive consistency. "To me, it's a matter of him getting more consistent at-bats and continuing to improve.

"I think there's a lot of times where guys get the at-bats [sporadically] and maybe it doesn't work out their way for whatever reason getting those at-bats, and then it kind of spirals, I guess. The thing about Gio is he’s continued to improve. Obviously, the glove’s always been there, that's never been a question. But to me, he just looks that much more comfortable than he did to me when we played together in Cleveland."

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