NEW YORK -- The presentation of the metallic championship belt bearing the Yankees’ interlocking "NY" logo took place on Monday evening, as it has following each of the club’s victories this year -- 106 and counting. This time was different: Aaron Judge hoisted the prize in front of a phalanx of cameras, the revelry already underway to celebrate their advance into the American League Championship Series.
Judge asked for silence, then remarked on what a series it had been, particularly the clinching AL Division Series Game 3 victory over the Twins. Then, as a grin spread across his face, Judge raised a bottle of Budweiser in Target Field’s visiting clubhouse and announced: “But tonight, the belt goes to G.T., baby!”
G.T., of course, is Gleyber Torres, the Yankees’ wunderkind middle infielder. Torres accepted the belt, indicative of the most important contributor to that game, then wiped bubbly from his eyes while his teammates demanded a speech.
“I feel nervous,” Torres said, then continued, “Great win, but tonight is played already. We’re going to go to the next series. Let’s go!”
With that, Torres dispatched the contents of a bottle of sparkling wine toward the ceiling, re-starting what the Yankees hope will be the second of their four wet and wild celebrations in this calendar year. And if these “next man up” Yanks are able to achieve their goal of a World Series championship, Torres will be a key reason why.
“He’s the next Yankee great,” Judge said. “I can’t even believe some of the stuff he does.”
What Torres accomplished in the ALDS -- at the ripe young age of 22, as an army of social media wiseacres delights in announcing -- was to hit .417 (5-for-12) with three doubles, a homer and four RBIs off Twins pitching. That includes the solo blast off Jake Odorizzi that cleared the left-field wall to open scoring and hush a sellout crowd on Monday evening.
Nervous? Maybe in a public-speaking situation, though it has been remarkable to witness Torres develop his English skills over the past two-plus years. Not so on the field, where Torres contributed stellar defense on a double play that bailed Luis Severino out of the first inning and a shift-aided gem that robbed Eddie Rosario of a fifth-inning hit.
“He’s a real special player,” DJ LeMahieu said. “No moment is too big for him. It’s a heck of a game he played, a heck of a series.”
“He’s unreal,” Giancarlo Stanton said, “and there’s more to come out of him.”
Those plays were months in the making. Torres recalled that sometime in December, he reached out to Carlos Mendoza, the Yankees’ Major League quality control and infield coach. Mendoza lives in the Tampa, Fla., area, and instead of battling the malls to tackle his Christmas shopping, Torres said he felt the itch to field ground balls.
“I said, ‘I want to play defense right now,’” Torres said. “‘I know it's early, but I just want to prepare. I want to make sure all the ground balls I made errors last year, I want to clean up everything.’ I just prepared really well.”
The only member of the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup not to land on the injured list this year, Torres slugged 38 homers during the regular season, becoming the second-youngest Yankee behind Joe DiMaggio to hit at least 30. His 90 RBIs were the most by a Yankee at age 22 or younger in a season since Mickey Mantle drove in 102 runs in 1954.
“I feel a little younger [than 22],” Torres said, with a broad grin. “It's not about my age. I'm focused and I'll do my job, help my team in any situation, just enjoy every situation and do my job. That's what's most important.”
Yankees manager Aaron Boone said that he senses Torres sets the bar high for himself, and that he savors being the man at the plate in pressure-packed situations. It was Torres’ two-run double in the fifth inning that broke open Game 1, whizzing down the left-field line and staking the Yanks to a 5-3 lead they would not relinquish.
“He expects a lot [of] himself,” Boone said. “He wants to be great for his team and he understands. We challenge him all the time to do little things that are going to allow him to be not just a really good player that goes to All-Star Games, but being that championship-caliber player and being one of the guys that helps set the tone. Those are things we’ve challenged him with and he’s lived up to it all along.”
“And he does it with a smile,” adds general manager Brian Cashman, who executed the July 2016 trade that imported Torres from the Cubs. “You see the personality playing out while he's consistently having success. It's a talent that very few possess.”
That five-player deal came as the Yankees attempted to rebuild on the fly, realizing the last vestiges of their aging core did not comprise a championship-caliber club. The Yanks wanted Torres, with talent evaluators raving about the Venezuelan’s “slow heartbeat,” and Cashman did not balk at the Cubs’ asking price of closer Aroldis Chapman.
Three years down the line, that swap can be viewed as a win for both sides, as it was a major milestone in the Cubs celebrating their first championship since 1908. Meanwhile, the Yankees moved to re-sign Chapman that offseason, and they can easily envision that if they are able to be the last team standing this October, Torres will be front and center in the dogpile.
“You saw it all year,” Judge said. “He comes up with big homers, comes up with great plays. It didn't matter if he was playing second or short[stop], he always did something to kind of wow you. … He's always trying to learn and always trying to work, and consistently, he's always there for his teammates. It doesn't matter if he's 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, he's going to have everybody's back and have a moment and have an impact on the game.”