CLEVELAND — Who knew that the sequence of events necessary to lead the Yankees back to the American League Championship Series would require the trade for Didi Gregorius, the shortstop that Brian Cashman targeted to follow the October legend, Derek Jeter?
No one could have predicted it, just as virtually no one forecast the Yankees to qualify for the playoffs this year. And once they did, most thought it impossible for them to knock off the top-seeded Indians — a team that won 22 games in a row — or rally from a self-inflicted 0-2 deficit.
But all that really happened, and then we had to suspend our disbelief one more time for Wednesday night’s Game 5, when Gregorius homered twice off Corey Kluber, the Indians’ ace and probable Cy Young winner, to power the Yankees’ 5-2 victory at a stunned-silent Progressive Field.
“For me, I always believed in myself,” Gregorius said afterward. “There’s always people that are going to doubt you. At the end, it’s up to you how hard you want to work. For me, everything starts with myself. I try to take advantage of everything.”
Gregorius became only the ninth player to go deep twice in a sudden-death playoff game, and the third Yankee, joining Yogi Berra (1956 World Series) and Jason Giambi (2003 ALCS). As instrumental as Gregorius has been to the Yankees’ surprising 91-win season, stepping up on the playoff stage takes him to another level — at least to an elevation that brings him into the Jeter conversation. Then again, that’s a discussion that’s quieted considerably in the past few years, especially in the wake of Wednesday’s postgame Champagne celebration.
“You don’t hear much about Jete,” CC Sabathia said. “Other than him owning the Marlins.”
For Gregorius, it’s now all about him owning Kluber, and what he can deliver in the next round against the Astros. Jeter helped the Yankees to five rings — four of them in the first five years of his career. Gregorius, still only 27, is long way from Bronx immortality. But he’s already proved himself a worthy successor to the future Hall of Famer, and Gregorius never flinched with the Jeter narrative hounding him.
“That question never gets old,” Gregorius said. “It’s amazing for me to be in this organization and just being awesome with these guys. I’m going to keep saying that so many times. If you guys get tired of it, let me know.”
Gregorius shocked Kluber in Wednesday’s winner-take-all showdown, hammering a 1-and-2 fastball over the rightfield wall in the first inning. After two meek outs — Brett Gardner’s leadoff bunt attempt and another strikeout by Aaron Judge — Gregorius instantly silenced a crowd that was anticipating the third strike.
As a momentum shifter, this Didi blast was on par with the tying three-run homer crushed in the wild-card win over the Twins, albeit with a different soundtrack. On that Oct. 3 night, Gregorius transformed the demoralized Bronx into giddy bedlam, rallying the restless crowd and sparking the Yankees to the eventual 8-4 victory.
After what the Indians’ faithful must have thought was a lucky punch, Gregorius did even more damage in the third inning, thanks to Gardner’s opening single. One out later, Gregorius fouled off a 91-mph cut fastball, then crushed an 87-mph curveball to the same locale as the first homer, only five feet shorter. Gardner, who watched from the basepaths, initially thought he needed to go back and tag up because he “figured there was no way Didi could take him deep twice in one game.”
Gardner was joking, but that’s been a common theme for Gregorius since he arrived in the Bronx: Underestimate him at your peril. Only two months after Jeter bid farewell at Fenway Park, Cashman acted quickly to secure Gregorius, pulling off a three-team trade with the Diamondbacks and Tigers that only cost him pitcher Shane Greene, who was shipped to Arizona.
Now that goes down as perhaps Cashman’s greatest heist in his nearly two decades as general manager. No disrespect to Jeter. We wish him well in fixing the Marlins. But Cashman, along with the rest of the Yankees’ Universe, isn’t spending much time daydreaming about the Jeter Era in the Bronx. They’re now onto the Dawn of Didi, and perhaps the start of a new October legend.