HOUSTON — Even before this unexpected October run by the Yankees, Didi Gregorius had exceeded almost all expectations since being tabbed as Derek Jeter’s replacement at shortstop.
In three seasons in The Bronx, Gregorius’ numbers at the plate have improved and he’s been more than solid in the field.
But it wasn’t until the past two weeks that the Yankees were sure the 27-year-old could deliver in the playoffs.
“Did we want to know how he was gonna play on the biggest stage? Of course we did,” said Yankees vice president of baseball operations Tim Naehring, who was instrumental in the team trading for Gregorius before the 2015 season following Jeter’s retirement. “We want to see if guys have the ability to slow the game down.”
Taking Jeter’s spot brought enough of a spotlight. October, though, is something different.
“You never know who’s gonna do what at this time of year, regardless of their accomplishments in the regular season,’’ general manager Brian Cashman said. “You give guys opportunities and see how they take advantage of it. He’s done everything we could possibly ask and then some.’’
Heading into Friday’s Game 6 of the ALCS against the Astros, Gregorius is 11-for-40 with six runs, a double, a triple, three homers and seven RBIs.
Only Greg Bird has a higher OPS on the Yankees than Gregorius’ .958 this postseason and the shortstop has become the everyday cleanup hitter, behind Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez.
But it’s also the way he played that impressed Naehring from the start, when Gregorius was still with the Diamondbacks and appeared in just 80 games in 2014. Gregorius came to the Yankees that December as part of a three-team deal with the Tigers that sent right-hander Shane Greene to Detroit.
“You look to see who anticipates and makes plays well,” Naehring said. “They have a good heartbeat. Obviously, [Gregorius] has a good heartbeat. You could see that when he was playing in Arizona when I watched him.”
Gregorius stood out quickly.
“It’s how they make plays on defense,’’ Naehring said. “If a ground ball is hit toward someone and they go after it like their hair is on fire, that’s not good. You wonder why they’re in a rush and how that will affect them when the spotlight gets brighter. You want a guy who understands the timing of the play, the runner’s speed, understands when he has to push the pedal down or take it off.”
And Gregorius had all that.
“We try to…