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Rise of the Machine: DJ thrives on NY stage

Versatile, disciplined infielder sets career highs across offensive categories
@BryanHoch
October 28, 2019

NEW YORK -- Most of DJ LeMahieu’s big hits this season with runners in scoring position -- and there were plenty -- were accompanied by the soundtrack of Gary Sánchez walking the length of the Yankees’ dugout, proudly announcing to anyone in sight: “The Machine! The Machine!” It was an

NEW YORK -- Most of DJ LeMahieu’s big hits this season with runners in scoring position -- and there were plenty -- were accompanied by the soundtrack of Gary Sánchez walking the length of the Yankees’ dugout, proudly announcing to anyone in sight: “The Machine! The Machine!”

It was an in-house nickname that exhibited staying power, certainly more than LeMahieu’s Rockies-issued moniker of “Big Fundy,” which the star infielder wore on the back of his Players' Weekend jersey in August. LeMahieu chuckled when asked about Sánchez’s loud take on his plate discipline and efficiency, exhibiting perhaps the coolest approach in the Bombers’ lineup.

“I prepare for big at-bats so when they come up, I'm not surprised by them,” said LeMahieu, who led the Majors with a .389 (49-for-126) batting average with runners in scoring position. “I just feel like I'm ready for them. I think our lineup is so good that if I don't come through or someone else doesn't come through, it's not the end of the game. It's not the end of the world.

“The next guy behind me is obviously a really good hitter, too. I don't feel too much pressure in those situations and I don't think our team does, clearly, because we put up a lot of runs.”

As general manager Brian Cashman detailed recently, there was some question how LeMahieu would fit into their plans for 2019. The club expected to go into the season with Miguel Andújar at third base, Gleyber Torres at second and either Greg Bird or Luke Voit at first, so Cashman was confused when several members of his front office staff continued to push for a LeMahieu signing.

“He’s been a game-changer for this roster and this franchise,” Cashman said. “It worked out extremely well and to our benefit, and so I thank those individuals for pushing it -- and I’ll pat myself on the back for hiring people smarter than me.”

What went right?

LeMahieu’s two-year, $24 million contract was one of the best signings of last offseason by any team, as his .327 batting average was the highest by a Yankee since Derek Jeter hit .334 in 2009. Along the way, LeMahieu set career highs in runs (109), hits (197), home runs (26), extra-base hits (61), RBIs (102) and a Major League-leading 61 multi-hit games.

“I think the chance to be a Yankee is special,” LeMahieu said. “Looking from the outside in the last couple of years, the talent here is something I wanted to be a part of. It’s even better than I thought. Just how they run things, the commitment to winning here is like nothing I've been a part of.”

A three-time National League Gold Glove Award winner at second base, LeMahieu showed his range by becoming the first player in franchise history to start at least 25 games at three infield positions -- 28 starts at first base, 66 starts at second and 47 starts at third.

“Honestly, I've gotten used to it,” LeMahieu said. “I think in Spring Training, I was so focused on my defense and I took so many ground balls. I think as the season has gone on, I've gotten in a pretty good routine.”

The American League’s Player of the Month for June, LeMahieu earned his third career All-Star selection in 2019, and he enjoyed four hitting streaks of at least 10 games, tied with Tim Anderson of the White Sox for the most in the Majors. LeMahieu was also one of the few members of the Opening Day roster to avoid a stint on the injured list.

What went wrong?

Good luck finding much that belongs in this category. If you want to nit-pick, maybe we can include that LeMahieu fell eight points shy of winning what could have been his second batting title. LeMahieu says that he “hates striking out,” and he did it 90 times in 602 at-bats -- nothing compared to some of the big swingers in the lineup, but LeMahieu would probably prefer it were closer to zero.

LeMahieu’s offensive approach translated into October, as he batted .325 with three homers and seven RBIs across nine postseason games, but he committed three errors. LeMahieu dropped a CJ Cron popup in the second inning of Game 1 of the AL Division Series against the Twins, though it didn’t cost the Yanks a run. He also booted an Alex Bregman grounder in the sixth inning and misplayed a Yuli Gurriel grounder in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the AL Championship Series against the Astros.

Best moment

You can make a case for LeMahieu’s game-tying home run in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the ALCS, which had the Yankees oh-so-close to extending their season, but we’ll select one with a happier ending. On Aug. 31 at Yankee Stadium, LeMahieu hit a game-winning home run in the 11th inning, powering a 4-3 victory over the A's.

LeMahieu had been 0-for-4 with three strikeouts when he stepped to the plate against Oakland’s Lou Trivino, slugging a ball over the right-field wall for his 24th homer of the season. The Yanks’ first walk-off homer of 2019 was just the Yanks’ sixth hit of the game, giving New York its first victory in five tries against the A’s.

“I was on deck, so I had a perfect view of it,” Aaron Judge said. “I threw my bat and helmet in the air and got ready for the celebration. He has been a great piece to this team, what he’s done day in and day out, when he’s feeling good, not feeling good -- he always produces. And that’s what you look for in a baseball player and a teammate.”

2020 outlook

The plans for next season figure to heavily include LeMahieu, who will likely hit near the top of manager Aaron Boone’s batting order no matter his defensive assignment. That will be determined over the next few months; one possible scenario could have LeMahieu returning to second base if Didi Gregorius departs as a free agent, with Gleyber Torres shifting to shortstop.

Though LeMahieu is signed through 2020, there has been a clamor from the fan base to extend the 31-year-old’s contract. The organization has not publicly commented on any plans to do so, but LeMahieu exited his first season in pinstripes having a largely positive experience.

“I would say that it's been a lot of fun,” LeMahieu said. “I think New York is a special place to play. I think playing in front of these fans is a special opportunity, and playing in this division is a lot of fun. Overall, I've really enjoyed it.”

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and Facebook.