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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Clutch Didi Gregorius a good fit in cleanup spot

The Orioles' Mark Trumbo is out at second

The Orioles' Mark Trumbo is out at second as Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius throws to first to get Chris Davis to complete a double play on Sept. 4, 2017, in Baltimore. Photo Credit: AP / Nick Wass

BALTIMORE

With a wiry 6-3 frame, Didi Gregorius profiles great as the agile, rifle-armed shortstop that he is. That’s the player he sees looking back at him in the mirror.

But a No. 4 hitter? On a Yankees team that also employs professional long-ball artists Aaron Judge, Matt Holliday and Greg Bird?

“Nope,” Gregorius said, smiling. “I’m not a cleanup hitter.”

Good thing for the Yankees that Joe Girardi thinks differently. It’s also fortunate for them that Gregorius has an open mind, because he’s adapted well to the role when asked, such as Monday, when he blasted a two-run homer that helped catapult the Yankees to a 7-4 comeback victory over the Orioles.

The way this Yankees roster is constructed, players often don’t know where they’ll be batting until they arrive at the ballpark. The only exception is Brett Gardner, who has been cemented in the leadoff spot for all of his 118 games this season.

On the other end of that spectrum is Gregorius, with Girardi using him anywhere from second to eighth as he fiddles with that day’s matchups. Against Dylan Bundy, coming off a one-hit shutout (12 strikeouts) of the Mariners, Girardi felt most comfortable penciling in Gregorius at No. 4 while dropping Judge to fifth and Bird to sixth and leaving Holliday on the bench.

Those instincts paid off as Gregorius drilled his 20th home run, becoming the first Yankees shortstop to reach that total in back-to-back seasons. Starlin Castro, who returned last week from the disabled list, had three RBIs from the No. 3 hole, including a go-ahead two-run homer in the fifth. Jacoby Ellsbury, a forgotten man a month ago, delivered the tying single in the fourth and is back in the forefront again with the loss of Aaron Hicks to another oblique issue.

Back before the All-Star break, the Yankees’ surprising climb to the top of the AL East was attributed to their offensive might, with a great deal of the heavy lifting provided by Judge and the others doing damage around him. With the return of Castro and Holliday, Girardi has those weapons to choose from again, and he also benefits from the multiple options they provide.

Bundy dominated the Yankees through the first three innings, surrendering no hits and two walks and striking out four. But after Castro opened the fourth with an infield hit, Gregorius got Bundy on a 1-and-2 pitch, sending it crashing off the railing above the rightfield scoreboard. Two more walks later, Ellsbury slapped the tying single.

Two batters into the fifth, Castro ended Bundy’s afternoon with his first home run since June 11, a two-run shot set up by Chase Headley’s leadoff single.

Headley has been more accustomed to hitting in the lower third of the lineup; 85 of his starts have been no higher than sixth. But Girardi slotted him second Monday, a decision certainly assisted by Headley’s numbers since July 20: a slash line of .333/.410/.568 with 10 doubles and seven homers in 41 games.

“I think it’s nice to be able to mix and match,” Headley said of the deeper, more flexible lineup. “Guys check their egos at the door. They’re able to hit wherever they’re asked and that allows some good things to happen.”

Despite Judge’s recent struggles, the Orioles wanted no part of him, and he gladly took the four walks (to go with an infield hit). The Yankees just got their power fix from other sources, with Gregorius and Castro more than capable of going deep, especially at cozy Camden Yards.

As attractive as Gregorius’ lefty pop can be for cleanup duty, his .293 batting average (34-for-116) with runners in scoring position is tops on the Yankees (minimum 80 plate appearances in that scenario).

Going by those numbers, Gregorius is a reliable run-producer, even if cleanup still feels odd to him. He’s in his third year with the Yankees and there’s only one place he hasn’t hit in pinstripes: leadoff. And he’s not holding his breath that it will happen.

“I don’t think so,” Gregorius said. “Because I don’t take pitches. I’ll leave that to Gardy.”

No need to mess with success.

New York Sports