NEW YORK -- When the Yankees gathered to examine their lineups for this American League Division Series, they essentially shredded Didi Gregorius’ statistics and fired them into the trash. Those numbers did not describe the caliber of season that had been anticipated, but there was a belief that one at-bat could turn it all around.
That proved prescient in a seven-run third inning, highlighted when Gregorius’ grand slam landed in the second deck in right field. As Gregorius stumbled out of the batter’s box, punctuating his fourth career postseason homer with a bat flip, the Yankees were set to grab an 8-2 victory over the Twins on Saturday and a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-five ALDS.
“Everybody goes through ups and downs, but the confidence level has always got to stay up,” Gregorius said. “For me, I just focus on my job and try to get better. That’s all I can do. People are always going to say something if you do good or bad. For me, it’s just go out there, play ball and try to get better.”
Minnesota’s front office had spoken optimistically about it being “time to slay the dragon,” but instead, the first two installments of the ALDS have provided new versions of the same old tale. Saturday marked the Bombers’ 12th consecutive playoff victory over the Twins, the longest win streak by any team against any opponent in Major League postseason history.
In the history of best-of-five postseason series, teams taking a 2-0 lead have gone on to win the series 71 of 81 times (88%). In Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, those winning Games 1 and 2 at home have won the series 27 of 30 times (90%). Of those 27 victories, 18 have been sweeps.
“Throttle down,” manager Aaron Boone said, summarizing his message to the team. “We’ll make sure we go out and match their energy. [Game 3 will be] the first home playoff game for them, so I’m sure the crowd will be energized. We need to go match it, and I know we will. Hopefully we can go get one.”
Gregorius’ season debut was delayed until June as the shortstop recovered from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow, and the 29-year-old struggled to reclaim his usual level of performance. There was even some question as to whether the Yankees would start him regularly in the ALDS, as Gregorius limped into October in a 9-for-51 (.176) funk.
“We know what he's capable of,” general manager Brian Cashman said prior to the ALDS opener. “Has it played out the way that I think Didi’s capabilities are to this point? The answer is no. I think that in October you're going to have a chance to see the real Didi.”
Cashman’s words held true when Gregorius connected off reliever Tyler Duffey, then allowed himself a few extra beats to admire the blast.
“I knew it was fair,” Gregorius said. “Just thinking back to my at-bats that I had against him [in Game 1], after I had two strikes, he threw me that fastball. I was prepared for it this time after he threw me the curveball in the dirt. I was ready for it this time, so that’s why my reaction was like that.”
“Didi is one of the leaders on this team, and no matter what the stats say or people say, he's always going to be a leader,” Judge said. “He's always going to come through in a big situation when you need him. That's why he's in this lineup, that’s why he’s in the postseason. He’s a killer.”
“I actually don’t get too caught up on being good in the postseason and all that,” said Tanaka, who is 4-1 with a 1.20 ERA in five postseason starts since losing the 2015 AL Wild Card Game in his playoff debut. “I think it’s still a small sample. My thing is just go out there, compete and be the best that you can be.”
The Yankees thumped right-hander Randy Dobnak, whose past service as an Uber driver provided one of the most interesting storylines of the postseason thus far. Dobnak had to contend with plenty of traffic on the basepaths; Edwin Encarnacion laced a run-scoring single in the first inning, and all three men Dobnak faced in the third inning came around to score.
Giancarlo Stanton greeted Duffey with a sacrifice fly and Gleyber Torres drove home New York’s third run with a hit before Gary Sánchez was hit by a pitch, loading the bases for Gregorius’ big swing. As he was two years ago in the AL Wild Card Game against Minnesota, when he erased an early lead with a three-run homer, Gregorius was summoned for a curtain call.
It was just the fourth postseason slam by a shortstop in Major League history -- all of which have occurred in recent seasons. In that category, Gregorius joined Brandon Crawford (2014), Addison Russell ('16) and Francisco Lindor ('17).
It was the first postseason grand slam by a Yankee since Robinson Canó hit one in Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS against the Tigers -- and it offered a reminder that, in the biggest games, Gregorius finds a way to deliver. That could be a nugget that the front office chooses to act on several weeks down the line, as Gregorius heads into his first crack at free agency.
“He's a grinder,” Judge said. “That's how I’ve always seen him, as a guy that just grinds out at-bats, grinds out situations. … Coming in trying to fill the role after Derek Jeter, that's a tough spot to be in, but he's overachieved. And I'm excited for him -- it's still early in the postseason, but we're going to see more special things from Didi.”