- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATLANTA -- A month into his New York Yankees career, there were a lot of things Yankees fans were inclined to call their new shortstop other than "Sir,'' the appellation he adopted after being knighted as a member of the Dutch national team that won the 2011 Baseball World Cup.
Suffice it to say, no one was considering him an adequate replacement for Brendan Ryan, let alone Derek Jeter. His first month's batting average was .206, his OPS .499. He had made a few errors on embarrassingly easy plays, and a few even more embarrassing baserunning blunders. His baseball instincts seemed too miniscule to measure. At best, he looked like a placeholder until the Yankees could find someone better to hold down a position they hadn't had to worry about for 20 years.
But little by little, Didi Gregorius has grown into his role, and grown on the people who watch him play every day. He's still no Jeter and probably never will be. But he's a far cry from the unmitigated disaster who took the field for the Yankees on Opening Day.
"I've never seen a player make that big a jump,'' Brian McCann said after Gregorius had a career night Friday in the Yankees' 15-4 victory over the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field, with four hits, six RBIs and his second home run in two games. "He's turned into, you know, a great baseball player. Offensively, defensively, running the bases. He's been great.''
Truthfully, Gregorius began making the turn a lot earlier than the results began to appear in the box score. Back in April, he had a few sessions on the practice field with Alex Rodriguez, who was a pretty fair shortstop in his day. Throughout May and June, he worked on his swing with hitting coaches Jeff Pentland and Alan Cockrell. And as he relaxed in his new environment, he began to show better judgment on the field and on the basepaths (although he is still inclined toward the occasional flashy but ill-advised play when trying to force a double play).
But the real results began to show in July, a month in which Gregorius hit .317 and raised his OPS to .786. He hasn't had that kind of August, although his last two games, in which he has gone 6-for-9 with two home runs, two doubles and eight RBIs, have raised his batting average for the month to .273. Overall, he is batting .260, with five home runs and 24 RBIs.
Gregorius is not one for deep introspection -- neither was Jeter, to be perfectly honest -- and he can't really tell you what caused his early struggles as a Yankee, or what has caused his sudden and significant improvement.
"Just with all these veteran guys I have here, I’m here to ask questions, trying to get better,'' he said. "I talk to [A-Rod], I talk to [Carlos] Beltran, I talk to all those guys. I pick their brains, ask them about certain situations, where I should look, that kind of stuff. That’s one thing they’ve all been helping me with. Everybody’s here helping each other out.''
But McCann has a theory that squares more with the belief that the move from the National League to the American League, from being a part-time player -- Gregorius spent half the 2014 season in Triple A -- to being the Yankees' everyday shortstop, and going from relatively laid-back Phoenix to relentlessly judgmental New York took its toll on the 25-year-old from Curacao.
"I think he's just letting his instincts play now,'' said McCann, who went through his own adjustment period last year and is a much better player this season. "He's flying all over the field defensively. He's making every play, and it's been fun to watch.''
Gregorius punctuated a five-run Yankees first-inning with a three-run homer off Braves starter Williams Perez, who got two quick outs in each of his two innings of work, only to fall apart quickly thereafter. Gregorius followed that with a two-run single in the second inning, an infield hit in the fourth and an RBI single in the eighth. Only three other Yankees shortstops had ever had as many as five RBIs in a road game -- Gil McDougald, Tony Kubek, and, of course, Jeter.
"That was a career high?'' Gregorius asked, sounding profoundly unimpressed with himself. "All it means is I'm helping the team win.''
Gregorius was the biggest contributor to an easy night for Masahiro Tanaka, who worked with a five-run cushion after one inning and a seven-run bulge after two. He got some desperately needed help from Jacoby Ellsbury, who made a spectacular diving catch on Christian Bethancourt's drive to the warning track, landing on his sore right hip in the process, with two on and the Braves chipping away -- it was 5-2 at the time -- in the bottom of the first. He also allowed a solo home run to Freddie Freeman in the third and wound up working seven innings and allowing three runs on five hits to earn his 10th win of the season.
Regarding Ellsbury's catch, Tanaka admitted, "He saved me,'' and when asked what he said to the center fielder coming off the field, answered, in English, "Nice catch.''
In his homecoming, McCann added a three-run homer and a sacrifice fly, and Chase Headley had a pair of ground-rule doubles, the first of which knocked in two runs.
But it was Gregorius who stole the show from the rest of them, and even if he never truly replaces Jeter, has at least succeeded in replacing the ineffective and, frankly, alarming version of himself that he presented in April.
"This is a game of adjustments, and every day I try to make some adjustments,'' he said. "I felt really good today.''
Some relief for Teixeira: Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who was pretty despondent before the game because of persistent pain in his right shin that has rendered him unable to run, was examined by a Braves team physician during the game who determined it was not necessary to perform any further tests on the deep bone bruise Teixeira suffered when he fouled a ball off his leg on August 17. That seemed to alleviate Teixeira's concern that there might have been an undetected fracture in the area.
"He basically said I have a lot of inflammation surrounding the bone,'' Teixeira said. "That's what's causing all the pain in my soft tissue, the nerves, the ligaments and everything. Pounding on it is not letting it heal. They say don't run until it feels better at a certain point. Hopefully that point is really soon but it's not just there yet.''
The bad news is Teixeira says he is still "in serious pain,'' and can't say for sure how long he will have to stay off the leg before he can return to action. "I was probably a little too aggressive with it early on,'' he said. "We just kind of have to take a step back and make sure that we take care of it.''
Rough night for Ellsbury: In addition to landing on his inflamed right hip in the first inning, Ellsbury fouled a ball off his knee and also got hit in the right shoulder with a pitch. As a result, manager Joe Girardi pulled him from the game after eight innings with the Yankees leading, 13-3.
"[The hip] swelled up a little bit but it wasn't like the other day, so we're good,'' Ellsbury said. "It was nice to get those two innings off and come in here and ice it. I thought I did well.''