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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Luke Voit realizes he needs to hit the spring brakes and make it to Opening Day injury-free

Luke Voit after being thrown out at third

Luke Voit after being thrown out at third base during Yankees' exhibition game against the Phillies in Clearwater, Fla., on Thursday.  Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

TAMPA, Fla.

The Yankees would prefer to have Luke Voit, last year’s MLB home run champion, mostly collect his extra bases in bunches, at a casual jog, as the ball ricochets around the outfield seats.

But sometimes — take Thursday against the Phillies, for example — Voit forgets that he’s built like a beer keg, not Brett Gardner. Anxious to show that his sore left knee was fully operational, he chose to bolt for third base on a fly ball that was caught in medium left-center.

The outcome was predictable. Not only was Voit easily thrown out, but he walked off the field with a slight limp, sparking some concern that maybe his achy left knee remained an issue.

A knee indeed was causing him some discomfort — but it was the other one, which Voit explained had "gushed open" on the slide. Apparently, the knee pad slipped down, exposing him to a typical "baseball injury," as he described the cut.

"It probably wasn’t the smartest play," he said Friday. "But I was feeling fast and I wanted to test [the left knee] out."

Now Voit figures he’ll have the bloody souvenir straight through to October, as just about every player gets nicked up by slides at some point during the long season. But that was of minor concern. Otherwise, he motored along the basepaths without any impairment.

The only problem, as manager Aaron Boone joked, is that Voit’s internal speedometer isn’t quite calibrated with reality. While Boone would never discourage his players from pushing the envelope in the right situations, he acknowledged that Voit — who plows ahead like a nose tackle who just scooped up a fumble — occasionally needs a refresher about his particular tool set.

"Luke has such an aggressive football mentality, he’s going 900 miles an hour," Boone said. "Sometimes, on the bases, he literally thinks he’s going 900 miles an hour when he’s going much slower. So we do remind him to make sure he’s making solid choices on the bases.

''Not that we want to limit his aggressiveness — everyone should be taking an extra base when they can — but it’s also being aware of who you are and what your speed is and being able to make solid reads and decisions in real time. So I feel like he’s done a good job of getting better at that over time. But every now and then, we’ve got to say, you know, ‘Rein it in a little bit, Luke.’ "

Pumping the brakes comes somewhat easier now for Voit, who didn’t get his big chance until age 27, after the Cardinals traded him to the Yankees midway through the 2018 season. Clawing for those rare at-bats with St. Louis conditioned him to treat every chance in the Bronx as if it could be his last. Only now, three years (with a .915 OPS) later, does Voit feel as if he can sort of exhale.

Voit doesn’t need to win a job. He just needs to keep himself healthy. He’s homered every 13.5 at-bats since coming to the Yankees and upped that frequency to 9.7 last season, when he hammered 22 in 56 games to lead the majors.

The pandemic-trimmed schedule made for a smaller sample size than usual, but Voit scoffs at any notion of being a short-season wonder.

"Everybody has speculation that I can’t do it again, so I’ve just got to prove everybody wrong," he said. "I’m not saying that I’m trying to hit 100 home runs or whatever. I also have to stay within myself and get the job done when I need to."

Translation: Don’t be a daredevil on the basepaths.

Voit entered spring training last year fresh off surgery to repair a number of torn core muscles, then dealt last season with "foot stuff" that turned out to be plantar fasciitis, which seems to be kicked after he was treated with platelet-rich plasma injections.

As long as Voit’s fearsome stroke stayed intact, he could deal with hobbling around the bases. But he’s got to be mindful of not turning small "stuff" into bigger problems, and if that requires him to dial things back occasionally, so be it. After all, Voit only looks indestructible.

"It’s a maturity thing," Voit said. "Obviously, I’ve always had a football mentality and you guys have seen that — you know, throw my stuff in the dugout or having some bad language out of my mouth. But over the years, I’m getting older. I gotta be smart and take care of myself because I can only play this game so long."

For now, it’s about the next two-plus weeks, and getting to Opening Day. Voit just has to pace himself.

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