From 2016 to 2018, Didi Gregorius was a cornerstone for the Yankees. He played slick defense at his demanding shortstop position, improved his plate discipline and smashed at least 20 home runs each year, a crucial left-handed counterbalance in a Yankees’ lineup heavy on right-handers.
But this season was anything but smooth for Gregorius. He missed the first two months after having Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow last fall, for an injury he sustained during last year’s postseason. And when he returned in June, Gregorius couldn’t quite recapture his pre-operation form on either side of the ball. Still, Manager Aaron Boone stuck with Gregorius even as he slumped heading into the playoffs.
All of that felt like a distant memory on Saturday as tens of thousands of fans chanted “Di-di! Di-di!,” and he obliged their request for a curtain call by thrusting both arms in the air from the dugout steps. He had just sent Yankee Stadium into a frenzy with a towering, third-inning grand slam, emphatically confirming just two games into this American League division series that the Yankees’ bats may indeed be too much for the Minnesota Twins.
Gregorius’s home run was the biggest hit of the Yankees’ 8-2 win over the Twins. The best-of-five series will shift to Minneapolis on Monday, with the Yankees one win away from clinching a berth in the A.L. Championship Series. And if the Twins cannot neutralize even the Yankees’ struggling hitters, they have little hope of extending their postseason.
Seeking to contain the Yankees’ home run-blasting offense in their hitter-friendly stadium, the Twins turned to the ground-ball pitcher Randy Dobnak, who skyrocketed from a low level of the minor leagues at the beginning of the season all the way to the major leagues.
Dobnak’s story was captivating: He went undrafted, played in an independent league, was an Uber driver to earn money as an underpaid minor leaguer this spring, and skipped a few Twins games to get married in late September — a date he and his wife had chosen because it was after the minor league season.
The Yankees did not homer off Dobnak, but they wore him down with hard-hit singles and doubles. Twins Manager Rocco Baldelli hooked Dobnak after the Yankees loaded the bases with no outs in the third inning and turned to Tyler Duffey, a reliable reliever during the regular season. But Duffey was no better against the Yankees’ buzz-saw of a lineup, which began to pile on the runs.
Left fielder Giancarlo Stanton gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead with a sacrifice fly. Second baseman Gleyber Torres smacked a single to make it 3-0. And then Gary Sanchez was hit by a pitch, loading the bases again. When Gregorius hammered a 1-2 pitch down the right-field line, it was the fourth straight at-bat in which Duffey failed to put a Yankees batter away with two strikes.
In that third inning alone, every Yankee hitter aside from Gio Urshela either drove in or scored a run. The scoring outburst overshadowed a strong performance from the Yankees’ pitching staff, led by starter Masahiro Tanaka, who allowed one run over five innings. The Yankees’ pitchers kept the Twins’ potent offense in check by pounding the bottom of the strike zone.
But the star of the night was surely Gregorius, who was slumping like no other player entering October. From mid-August through the end of the regular season, he had a miserable .184 batting average across 30 games. It didn’t help that in August he dealt with finger and shoulder injuries, neither of which sent him to the injured list. Some metrics showed Gregorius had regressed on defense. And given the versatility of D.J. LeMahieu and Torres, it seemed plausible that Gregorius might sit out against a left-handed pitcher this postseason.
Boone, though, backed Gregorius. The manager’s words before Saturday’s game proved to be prescient.
“I still maintain that the best is yet to come from Didi, and I know he’s going to have some big swings for us moving forward,” he said, adding that Gregorius was pressing at the plate and working behind the scenes to snap out of his funk. Boone continued, “Sometimes it just takes one at-bat, one swing to kind of turn it, and I believe that’s what’s in there for Didi still.”
That swing came in the third inning on Saturday. After he drove a high fly ball to right field, Gregorius stood at home plate and toyed with the bat before trotting toward first. Even as he rounded the bases, Gregorius, stoic throughout his struggles, appeared to keep an expressionless face.
In the dugout, right fielder Aaron Judge urged the crowd on by waving his arms. Dellin Betances, the injured star reliever on crutches, smacked the top of the dugout roof in delight. Gregorius finally grinned as he high-fived and hugged his teammates, another Yankees’ victory all but assured with his breakout swing.
Here are the highlights of the Yankees’ win, as they happened:
8th Inning: It’s All But Over
The announced attendance for Game 2 was 49,277, and a good portion of them headed for the exits after the Twins went down in order in the top of the eighth, striking out two more times to raise their total to 12.
7th Inning: About That Slump…
The Yankees must be slumping — they haven’t scored in four innings.
Adam Ottavino entered the game for Tommy Kahnle and pitched around a double by the rookie Luis Arraez. Ottavino struck out Miguel Sano to raise the Twins’ strikeout totals to 10 through seven innings.
Didi Gregorius led off the bottom of the seventh for the Yankees and drew a walk. With a grand slam and a single already for Gregorius, it is an encouraging sign for the Yankees — like adding another diamond to a ring, so to speak. Gregorius finished the regular season with only one hit in his last 31 at-bats and was 14 for his last 85 over his final month of play for a .165 batting average (he then went 0 for 3 with a walk in Game 1 on Friday). The Yankees lineup is unrelenting, and because of his slump, teams might have seen Gregorius as the only hole in it — until now. With Sir Didi showing signs of emerging from the funk, the question is: How can anyone pitch through this lineup?
4th Inning: Twins Finally Muster a Run
Call it a rally, or perhaps as much of one as the Twins are going to get against Masahiro Tanaka. Minnesota scored a run on Mitch Garver’s R.B.I. single to cut the deficit to 8-1. The only hit Tanaka surrendered through the first three innings was Nelson Cruz’s broken-bat bouncer back to the box that Tanaka could not corral. The Twins did not hit a ball out of the infield until Jorge Polanco’s fly ball to left field leading off the fourth. Tanaka has thrown 73 pitches through four innings.
The Yankees actually did not score in the bottom of the fourth. This game is two hours old and they are not even halfway.
3rd Inning: Gregorius Blasts a Grand Slam
The rout is on. Didi Gregorius hit a grand slam to right off reliever Tyler Duffy, and it was such a no-doubter that right fielder Eddie Rosario never even pretended to go after it. The Yankees took a 7-0 lead and the celebrations were already underway.
The Yankees knocked Dobnak out of the game earlier in the inning when they loaded the bases with nobody out, and went on to score seven runs. Duffy replaced Dobnak, who allowed four runs in two-plus innings. Giancarlo Stanton hit a sacrifice fly and Gleyber Torres singled to left before Gregorius’s slam.
Dobnak’s short outing was fairly predictable. A recent Uber driver against this lineup? Rather optimistic of the Twins. The last Twins rookie to start a game in the postseason was Brian Duensing at Yankee Stadium in 2009. Duensing gave up five runs in four and two-thirds innings and his father was hit by a car outside the stadium (he was O.K.).
Gregorius’s slam was the 12th by a Yankee in the postseason, and first since Robinson Cano’s off Al Alburquerque of the Detroit Tigers in 2011 (WFAN’s Mike Francesa knew him as Alberto).
1st Inning: Encarnacion Delivers an Early Advantage
Yankee Stadium is alive with this late afternoon start on a crisp autumn day, and the Yankees wasted little time getting on Twins starter Randy Dobnak, the rookie pitcher who drives an Uber in the off-season. Fans were chanting “U-ber” when Dobnak got in trouble in the first inning. He gave up a run after D.J. Lemahieu doubled and Edwin Encarnacion later laced a one-out, run-scoring single, but the 24-year-old right-hander got out of more trouble — and quieted the sarcastic chants — when he induced a double-play ball from Giancarlo Stanton.
Masahiro Tanaka also used a double play to escape problems in the top half of the inning. With one out, he hit Jorge Polanco with a pitch and then could not field Nelson Cruz’s broken-bat comebacker. But Tanaka got Eddie Rosario to bounce a changeup to Lemahieu at first base and Tanaka covered the bag and caught Didi Gregorius’s relay throw in time.