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Competitive fire burns in soft-spoken LeMahieu

GM on 2B: 'Don't mistake quiet or shyness for weakness. ... It's just the opposite.'
October 2, 2018

CHICAGO -- Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu's voice isn't any louder. But, man, has his bat been speaking up.LeMahieu, who in a well-chronicled story was traded to the Rockies by the Cubs by then-new president of baseball operations Theo Epstein before the 2012 season, has a reputation for being quiet.

CHICAGO -- Rockies second baseman DJ LeMahieu's voice isn't any louder. But, man, has his bat been speaking up.
LeMahieu, who in a well-chronicled story was traded to the Rockies by the Cubs by then-new president of baseball operations Theo Epstein before the 2012 season, has a reputation for being quiet. He's won a batting title, two Gold Glove Awards, two Defensive Player of the Year Awards (one for his position, another for the club) and appeared in two All-Star Games -- somehow doing it all quietly, partly because he has no self-promotion streak.
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But a key reason the Rockies made the postseason this year is his suddenly loud bat. He knocked a career-high 15 home runs -- in only 128 games because of injuries. A dozen of his homers put the Rockies ahead.
LeMahieu's 1,000th career hit, and his 1,000th in a Rockies uniform -- he had just 15 of his 1,026 career hits hits for the Cubs in 2011 -- passed without panoply. But those occasions came late in the regular season, and both were important in the late-season run to the postseason.
"The thing that I think is so special about DJ is that when the game starts, he plays the game to win, and how his skill set helps us do that, whatever that might be, whether that's defensively, whether it's with the bat, moving a runner, getting a bunt down, hit and run, knocking in a big run, hitting a homer, whatever it might be," Rockies manager Bud Black said. "He's about a W, and that's what makes DJ special."

But many who have spent time on the field beside him -- ex-Rox and current Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and current infield teammates come to mind -- say there is a vicious competitive streak that can't be seen on television or from the stands.
But the real spirit came to the surface -- against the Cubs, no less -- on April 22. LeMahieu was the runner at second base in the third inning of the Cubs' 9-7 victory at Coors Field. Thinking LeMahieu was relaying signs to hitters Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story, Cubs shortstop Javier Baez began intentionally standing in front of LeMahieu before the pitch to block his view. After a bit, umpires had to step in when LeMahieu and Baez were yelling at each other.
The fire is something the Rockies value. When the season is over, all will find the monetary value, as LeMahieu is up for free agency. While not revealing his plans in regard to LeMahieu, general manager Jeff Bridich said Tuesday he realizes all LeMahieu brings adds up to wins.
"In terms of being a piece of the foundation of the club, he's definitely played that part very well," Bridich said. "Don't mistake quiet or shyness for weakness. DJ naturally is on the more reserved, quiet side. Don't mistake that for lacking intensity or competitiveness. It's just the opposite."
The legend of 'Pepe Negro'
Black and Cubs manager Joe Maddon know each other well, going back to their days together on the Angels' coaching staff. Maddon recalled a memorable bus ride from that era to Hermosillo, Mexico, for a Spring Training game.
"[Black] said, 'Joe-Joe, I won the Caribbean League championship in this ballpark,'" Maddon said of Black, who was pitching for Venezuela at the time. "I said, 'That's pretty cool, man. What did the papers declare the next day? "Buddy Negro pitches and wins championship?"' He said, 'No, Pepe Negro.'"
"Negro" is the Spanish word for black.

"So from that moment on, he became Pepe Negro to me," Maddon said. "After that game, we're leaving the ballpark, this dude comes down with the hat and he wants us to sign it and he threw it at Pepe, and he started to sign it. He said, 'No, no, no, please sign it Pepe Negro,' and he did, and that's where the legend began."
Black laughed when told the story.
"Joe's recollection is pretty correct about what transpired," Black said.
The two managers are good friends -- just maybe not on Tuesday night.
Funny the people you meet
Maddon also has a connection to Rockies starter Kyle Freeland, although not as close. Freeland's brother works at a bike shop in Tampa, Fla., where Maddon has done business.
"I've talked about him, how I like [Kyle] for the last couple years," Maddon said. "He's a really good pitcher."
A not-so-special, special moment
Rockies righty reliever Adam Ottavino struggled so much last season that he was left off the roster for last year's NL Wild Card Game. Even during Spring Training, long before his 112 strikeouts in 77 2/3 innings this season, Ottavino said being inactive for the 11-8 loss to the D-backs motivated him. But with a good season behind him now, he's not celebrating being included in the postseason this year.
"Probably not," Ottavino said a few days ago when asked if he'd commemorate the moment. "I don't like thinking about it, to be honest. That hurt me a lot last year. So I'm just going to get ready to pitch."

Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page.

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.