If you go looking for the perfect description of what DJ LeMahieu does for the Yankees, as he did again Friday night with a homer, a double, two RBIs and two runs scored in the Yankees’ 4-1 win over Boston, you might want to search somewhere other than the locker belonging to No. 26.
LeMahieu is about as low-key as they come when he’s not standing in the batter’s box, and his postgame summation Friday focused mostly on complimenting Red Sox ace Chris Sale. “He’s tough to get,” LeMahieu said.
Sure. Maybe in the first inning, as Sale accomplished the nearly impossible by making hit machine LeMahieu look ridiculous, whiffing him on four pitches, the last an 81-mph slider. Beyond that, LeMahieu owned Sale, with an RBI double and home run in his next two at-bats.
LeMahieu isn’t the sort of player who would adequately sum up what that meant, or how difficult that was, so we posed the question to Aaron Hicks. He was impressed.
“That guy rakes,” Hicks said. “It seems like he can hit any kind of location, any pitch. He’s a tough out. That’s what we thought when we got him. He’s a huge asset for our team.”
The ironic thing? Maybe if the Yankees were completely healthy and everyone was positioned where they’re supposed to be, LeMahieu would be relegated to his $24 million utility role, the super-sub that Brian Cashman envisioned with the surprise signing on Jan. 14.
Instead, LeMahieu has performed like the two-month team MVP and emerged as the true gem of Cashman’s busy winter.
When the Yankees made their offseason moves in an effort to catch up with the defending champion Red Sox, the signing of LeMahieu probably wasn’t the acquisition dreaded most at Fenway. The rotation already had been fortified by the trade for James Paxton and the $34 million return of J.A. Happ. Even the addition of relievers Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino to the Yankees’ super-pen generated more buzz.
But LeMahieu, seemingly overkill at the time, has become essential to the Yankees’ 37-19 start, 31-10 surge and 8 1⁄2-game lead on the Sox, making a team-high 35 starts in the leadoff spot (Brett Gardner is second with 20), hitting .317 and delivering in the clutch.
After getting corkscrewed earlier by Sale’s nasty slider, LeMahieu learned his lesson, sitting back on another slider — after two fastballs — and driving it into the right-centerfield gap for an RBI double in the third. After sliding into second, the usually reserved LeMahieu popped up and furiously clapped, as excited as the Yankees fans among the crowd of 45,556 who roared their approval.
That upped LeMahieu’s average with runners in scoring position to .457 (21-for-46). He has reached base safely in 41 of 51 games this season.
LeMahieu later said Friday in the Bronx was like a playoff atmosphere — as animated as it gets from him — but Aaron Boone disagreed with the suggestion that his second baseman is strictly even-keeled on the field.
“If you watch DJ, he’s certainly quiet and businesslike — all true,” Boone said. “But he’ll show some emotion on the field. I’ve seen a number of times where he’ll come up, and he’s pumping his fist. He’s out there to rip your heart out. He plays with an edge. And I think he does love being in this environment.”
When it came to Sale, LeMahieu had more ripping to do after the double. In the fifth, the Sox ace started him with a first-pitch changeup (85 mph), then went back-to-back fastballs. Again, LeMahieu was ready. He smoked the 93-mph heater into the Yankees’ bullpen.
Afterward, when told of Boone’s characterization, LeMahieu flashed an uneasy smile. Rip your heart out?
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Ask the Red Sox. We’re sure they’d agree.