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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier grows into a starting role

The Yankees' Clint Frazier is congratulated as he

The Yankees' Clint Frazier is congratulated as he rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Rays during the third inning in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Monday in San Diego. Credit: AP/Jae C. Hong

You can point to any number of 2020 milestones in the maturation of Clint Frazier. But as far as that trademark True Yankee moment, it typically requires the October stage, which is why Frazier’s go-ahead blast off the Rays’ Blake Snell in Monday night’s 9-3 victory felt particularly special.

Special enough that manager Aaron Boone put Frazier back in the Game 2 lineup, even against righthander Tyler Glasnow, a matchup that usually would favor Brett Gardner, the only Yankees lefty on the roster that is considered a regular (other than the switch-hitting Aaron Hicks).

Gardner, 37, started both wild-card games in Cleveland, and went 3-for-5 in Game 1 with a two-run homer, so he’s produced of late. We have little doubt the longest tenured Yankee -- the last holdover from the ’09 title -- must have been surprised Tuesday to see that Frazier was playing leftfield.

But Boone had sound reasons for the swap, and to this point, his lineup decisions (with front-office collaboration?) have been paying off. Neither Frazier (1-8, 3 Ks) nor Gardner (0-7, 5 Ks) had meaningful sample sizes against Glasnow. His reverse splits, however, favored Frazier’s power from the right side. While both sides batted .200 vs. Glasnow this season, righties had a .737 OPS, with eight homers in 110 at-bats as opposed to a .606 OPS and three homers in 105 at-bats for lefties.

"It was something I slept on, deliberated on it, and it’s kind of been that way each time," Boone said before Game 2. "When I went into the postseason, I told you that both those are going to play a big role for us, and I still very much feel that way.

"It’s always close [lineup-wise] because both guys are such good options. With Glasnow, like Snell -- possibly even more so -- controlling the zone is critical. Both guys have a real good chance to do that, and then I feel like maybe Clint has a chance to get on one, too. Every game has been a close call for me, but Clint was the matchup today."

Frazier definitely "got on one" during the third inning of Game 1. After taking a first-pitch curve ball below his knees, Frazier attacked a 96-mph fastball above the strike zone to hammer a 418-foot homer. Not bad for someone who was mostly idle during the wild-card series, then spent the weekend at Petco trying to tune up with live BP.

"With Snell, he's a guy that likes to throw up in the zone a lot and his fastball plays up, so I kind of had my sights set right there," Frazier said afterward. "But it's not often you hit that pitch because it's so difficult to hit. It’s probably the first one in my career I've ever done like that and it came at a big time."

Frazier’s solo blast snapped a 1-1 tie and also made him the 11th player in franchise history to go deep in his first playoff start as a Yankee. Expect those starts to keep coming. Frazier’s vastly improved defense helped make him a more regular fixture in leftfield during the regular season, and now that the Yankees are operating at full strength again, he’s considered an integral part of this championship drive -- not just a bat that can’t be trusted otherwise.

Watching his reactions on the bench during Monday’s win, and then interviewing him afterward, you could tell the adrenaline rush from that pivotal homer may stick with Frazier for a while. That’s a good thing, because during this condensed, pressure-packed schedule, those positive vibes can fuel a more prolonged stretch of success.

"I feel like I had blacked out running around the basis," Frazier said, laughing. "The last few weeks had been frustrating for me at the plate, and I didn't finish the season the way I wanted to. But it meant a lot because tonight's is all that matters."

Until the next game, of course. Then you have do it all over again. But the Yankees don’t seem to worry anymore about Frazier. After years of Bronx growing pains, he’s reached the level of fully-developed Yankee now at age 26. And no moment is too big, no fence too far away.

"I definitely think it's a good thing when you've had recent success to build on, especially when you are kind of new going through it," Boone said. "There's no doubt that's something that hopefully he can ride and he can continue to build confidence from, but I'm also more banking on the fact that he's a really good player. He's earned more and more of these opportunities."

The Yankees will gladly keep giving them to Frazier. No longer out of desperation, but because he’s graduated to become the best man for the job.

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