The crowd noise at Houston’s Minute Maid Park was deafening the entire night, but now it had reached another level. DJ LeMahieu -- coming off an explosive first season with the Yankees in which he swatted a career-high 26 homers and drove in a career-best 102 runs -- stepped into the batter’s box. The Astros had their closer, Roberto Osuna, on the mound, and stood just two outs away from the 2019 World Series.
Everyone who made up the sea of orange knew that this was the moment. Thousands of towels waved through the air. With a runner on first, one of the most dangerous hitters in the American League was at the dish with a chance to keep things going or maybe even tie the game. If he failed, the Yankees’ season would be on life support.
Osuna missed with a 95-mph cutter on his first pitch, then blew a 98-mph fastball past LeMahieu. The Yankees' infielder caught up to the third pitch, another 98-mph fastball, fouling it off. Osuna threw a slider that missed the plate with his fourth pitch, bringing the count to 2-2. The right-hander, who had led the league with 38 saves, followed with two fastballs in the high 90s, a changeup and another fastball that registered 99 mph on the radar gun. LeMahieu continued to battle, fouling off each of those offerings. Osuna’s ninth pitch, another fastball, missed the strike zone. The count was full.
The expression on LeMahieu’s face was stoic and serene. It was almost as if he didn’t blink during the marathon at-bat, despite being in the center of a cauldron of noise and dealing with the pressure of trying to save the season.
Osuna had thrown everything he had at LeMahieu; this had already been an epic battle between two of the most talented players at their respective crafts. On the 10th pitch, Osuna went back to his cutter, and finally, LeMahieu was able to drive it.
LeMahieu got just enough of the baseball, sending it to right field and into the first row of seats, barely beyond the reach of Astros right fielder George Springer. Suddenly, the ballpark was quiet. Fans were no longer waving their orange rally towels. LeMahieu pumped his fist once as he rounded first base, but retained the stone-faced “the game is not over yet” expression he had during the long at-bat. The game was tied, 4-4, and the Yankees’ season, for now, was still intact.
“I was just trying to get on base, and I ended up hitting a home run,” says LeMahieu, who signed a new six-year deal with the Yankees this past January. “I felt like that’s what we did that whole year. When we had to deal with adversity, we just fought back.”
For LeMahieu, whose humility and calm demeanor are as prominent as his all-world hitting prowess, that at-bat was a microcosm of his first season in pinstripes, and really, his entire career. A Major League star from Day 1 he was not. A player who worked hard year in and year out, and over time slowly elevated his game to the top tier of big leaguers, well, that’s a little more accurate.
Out of Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, LeMahieu was selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 41st round of the 2007 Draft. He didn’t sign with the hometown team, instead enrolling at collegiate powerhouse LSU, where he helped lead the Tigers to the 2009 College World Series title. During that run, the Chicago Cubs grabbed LeMahieu in the second round of the 2009 Draft, and he signed his first professional contract at 21 years old. He made it to the big leagues after two seasons in the Minors, splitting his time in 2011 between Chicago and the team’s top two affiliates. During the offseason before the 2012 campaign, the Cubs traded LeMahieu to Colorado, and that’s where the steady maturation really began for the second baseman.
LeMahieu split his first two seasons in the Rockies organization between the big league club and the Minors, playing 109 games for Colorado in 2013. In 2014, he came up for good, batting .267 with five home runs and 42 RBIs in 149 games while also taking home a Gold Glove Award at second base. For many of those games in 2013 and 2014, LeMahieu shared the middle infield with perennial All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the team’s unquestioned leader and an icon in Colorado.
“Tulo was a guy who went out of his way to help me,” LeMahieu says. “I don’t think I would be the player I am today without having played with him because he challenged me. He challenged me to be better when I thought that the ceiling was what I did in 2013 or 2014, but I kept getting better after that. Tulo was the one person who would challenge me to be better than I thought I could be.”
LeMahieu took on that challenge, working to raise his own personal bar. In 2015, a season that saw Tulowitzki leave town in a July trade to Toronto, LeMahieu batted .301 and earned his first All-Star selection. In 2016, the second baseman took a quantum leap, leading the Majors with a .348 batting average.
It was also the difficulty of climbing baseball’s proverbial ladder that LeMahieu believes helped him immensely.
“A lot of hard work paid off,” he says. “But so did a lot of failure. I picked myself up after failing on a lot of occasions. I was a good player, but not a great player. I knew there was more in me, and I was always trying to improve.”
LeMahieu won Gold Glove Awards in 2017 and 2018, and he earned a second All-Star selection during the 2017 season, which he finished with a .310 batting average. That individual success was accompanied for the first time by a team accomplishment. After a long drought, the Rockies returned to the postseason in 2017 and 2018.
“As a team, we had some tough years,” he says. “But making the playoffs in my last two seasons was an important accomplishment for that group, and going through that experience helped me improve. I was finally playing in games that had playoff implications every day in the regular season, and then in postseason games with all the pressure in the world. It’s hard not to grow as a player from that.”
LeMahieu hit the free-agent market in November 2018. It appeared likely that the then-30-year-old’s resume, his reputation as a good teammate, and the many productive years presumably ahead of him would land him a long-term contract. But as unpredictable as the sport itself is, so, too, was the market for top-flight free agents leading into the 2019 season. As he had done so many times before, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman seized the opportunity to bring in a player he believed would make a difference for his team, signing LeMahieu to a two-year contract.
LeMahieu’s arrival in New York came with little fanfare. The contract didn’t rival those of the other high-profile players in the sport or even on the team in terms of financial compensation. Of even greater significance, LeMahieu -- a two-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glove Award winner and batting champion -- wasn’t even guaranteed a starting position. Instead, he was joining an infield already comprised of everyday players who had locked down their respective positions.
“I was just excited to be a Yankee,” LeMahieu says. “I was surprised that they had interest in me because they had such a young, up-and-coming and talented infield already. But I had watched the Yankees from afar before that, and I admired the group they had in New York. I didn’t exactly know how much I was going to play or where I was going to play, but I knew that I could help the Yankees in one way or another.”
A few months prior to LeMahieu’s arrival, Didi Gregorius, the team’s popular shortstop for the previous four seasons, underwent Tommy John surgery on this throwing arm. His return was projected for midway through the 2019 season. That development compelled Cashman to bring in Tulowitzki -- whose lifelong dream was to play for the Yankees, but whose career had been ravaged by injuries in the two seasons before that -- as a stopgap.
Tulowitzki realized his dream of wearing the pinstripes, but it was short-lived. After just five games and one home run, the former All-Star would again fall victim to injury, this time effectively forcing his retirement at 34 years old.
Ironically, it was LeMahieu -- a reserve on Opening Day -- who would fill the void. Taking the field at first base, second base and third base while Gleyber Torres handled the shortstop duties, all LeMahieu did during that time was hit at a .323 clip and give the team solid defense at all three positions.
“People were surprised that DJ came to the Yankees and suddenly became one of the best players in the American League,” Tulowitzki said after his retirement. “But I don’t know why anyone would have expected anything different. He was a great player in Colorado, and he was only getting better when he left. For the Yankees, it was an incredible signing. What really is the surprising thing is that there wasn’t more competition from other teams for DJ. The rest of baseball missed out on an all-time great player.”
When Gregorius returned to the field on June 7, manager Aaron Boone knew that regardless of who was healthy among an infield cast that included Torres, Luke Voit and Gio Urshela, among other options, LeMahieu had to be in the lineup.
LeMahieu finished the 2019 season with a team-leading .327 average. Additionally, he set new career highs with 197 hits, 26 home runs, 102 RBIs and 33 doubles. A below-the-radar free-agent acquisition a few months prior, LeMahieu finished fourth in the AL MVP voting.
“It all came together for me with the Yankees in terms of consistency and raising the level of my game,” he says. “I just feel like getting over the humps I had dealt with prior to that made me stronger, and it was just my time when I got to New York.”
LeMahieu’s time stretched into the postseason. His game-tying home run in Game 6 of the ALCS pushed his batting average to .346 in that series. But it ended up being his final at-bat of 2019.
For the Yankees, the 2020 season began with unbridled optimism and with the hope of finally getting back to the World Series for the first time since 2009. Having signed elite starting pitcher Gerrit Cole to a blockbuster deal, the team was ready to roar out of the gate. That was, of course, until the COVID-19 pandemic changed just about everything. The baseball season was put on pause before it even began, and after a brutal span of months that was filled with sadness, disappointment and fear, baseball returned in late July to play a 60-game regular season.
Before LeMahieu restarted his preparation for the 2020 season, he tested positive for COVID-19, forcing him to remain at home in Michigan for two weeks until he cleared various health protocols, including testing negative multiple times. But for as much as had changed in baseball and throughout the world in 2020, LeMahieu’s dogged determination remained exactly the same.
“I was behind when I finally joined the team,” he says. “But that wasn’t an excuse. We were all dealing with adversity and uncertainty. I knew I had to work harder when I got back, and that was no different from how I felt in so many other seasons.”
In 50 games and 195 at-bats, LeMahieu once again led the Majors in batting, this time with a .364 average. He also led the AL with a .421 on-base percentage and a 1.011 OPS. LeMahieu became the first player in the modern era to win a batting title in both leagues, and he became the first Yankee to lead the Majors in batting average since Mickey Mantle. Prior to Mantle pacing the big leagues with a .353 average during his Triple Crown season of ’56, only Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig accomplished the feat while wearing pinstripes, both in the 1930s.
“It’s nice to be associated with those players, but you can’t compare me to them,” says LeMahieu, who also won his second straight Silver Slugger Award and finished third in the AL MVP voting. “Those guys were legends; they’re immortals. I’m certainly not any of those things. I had a good year. I’m glad we got to play as many games as we did. It was a unique season. All routines that we had during our careers disappeared, just because of all that we had to do just to play games. You have to be proud of getting through those circumstances and playing well, but I’ll leave it at that.”
When comparing the two batting titles that have etched LeMahieu’s name into baseball history, his humility is again apparent, as he downplays the accomplishment.
“Both are cool,” he says. “I don’t really think about that stuff during the season, but then you look back at it afterward, and it’s definitely cooler. Last year was more unique. I think that’s the way I would separate the two. One experience was a lot more unique.”
The Yankees made it back to the postseason in 2020, but were knocked out by Tampa Bay in a best-of-five American League Division Series that went the distance and came down to the final inning. Not long after the final out of the season was recorded, the baseball world was buzzing about where LeMahieu, again a free agent, and who batted .336 over his two seasons with the Yankees, would end up. This time around, there was no shortage of teams willing to shell out top dollar to secure LeMahieu for a long time.
Oh, how things had changed from only two years before. The market for the 32-year-old leadoff hitter with the highest batting average in the Majors over the last two seasons was red-hot.
From the beginning of the process, the Yankees were outspoken about their desire to keep LeMahieu in pinstripes for years to come. But with stiff competition from other clubs and a fiscal climate cooled by the pandemic, no one within the organization thought that retaining LeMahieu would be easy.
Keeping LeMahieu was Cashman’s top offseason priority, and the All-Star second baseman wanted to remain in pinstripes. Ultimately, both got what they wanted, with LeMahieu signing his name to a six-year deal at the end of January.
“We had a long, drawn-out negotiation, but all that matters is that you find mutual agreement that you can both live with and be happy with,” Cashman says. “We were able to do that. We got a great player, a great Yankee, and we look forward to his talents competing on a year-in, year-out basis here as we move forward. He is a driver of success, and we’re lucky to have him in the fold.”
LeMahieu was just as excited about staying in the Big Apple, and specifically the Bronx.
“New York is a special place to play baseball,” he says. “Being a part of the Yankees organization is special. This group is special. Every season is different, but the majority of this group has been here for the two years I’ve been here, and I didn’t want to leave those guys. This is the place I wanted to play. My family loves New York, and it’s a great fit for me.”
LeMahieu’s home run in Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS was inspiring. It was epic. But it wasn’t a game-winner. The story of that game and that series didn’t end with LeMahieu. In the bottom of the ninth, Jose Altuve hit a game-winning home run against Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman that sent the Astros to the World Series. The defeat left LeMahieu longing for a championship, which again eluded the Yankees in 2020. That void -- in what is an evolving career filled with personal accomplishments -- may have been the most significant factor that kept LeMahieu in pinstripes.
“For the Yankees, winning the World Series is the goal every year,” he says. “There’s no rebuild. They are going to go for it every year, and that’s something that aligns with an organization I wanted to be part of. Hopefully at the end of the six years, or whenever I’m done being a Yankee, I’ve been part of some great teams that have accomplished our goals. I hope I can look back at my time with the Yankees when it’s over and be proud of it.”