Yankees rookies Andujar, Torres braced for postseason pressure

ByColey Harvey ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- On the late April morning he was called up from Triple-A, set to make his major league debut, Gleyber Torres was brought into a private conversation with New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius.

What the veteran infielder told Torres that day has stuck.

"He comes to me and says, 'Hey. Play your game. Enjoy the moment, this awesome moment. And never change your [mentality],'" Torres said, recounting what he considers the most important lesson he has been taught during his first season in the big leagues.

Play your game. Never change.

For a player who has had a bit of a streaky season, yet one still fit for Rookie of the Year candidacy, that is advice worth following now more than ever.

Torres is not the Yankees' only Rookie of the Year hopeful who could benefit from that message.

As Torres and fellow Baby Bomber Miguel Andujar prepare for the first postseason of their careers, their team also faces the uncomfortable possibility of being without its starting shortstop.

Gregorius, who hurt his right wrist Saturday on the play that clinched the Yankees' playoff berth, could miss time beyond this week, pending an evaluation Wednesday. He contended Monday he would be back in a matter of days. That remains to be seen -- his manager, for one, was keeping expectations low.

"I mean, he felt significantly better, and [with] just some of the range-of-motion things he's able to do," Aaron Boone said. "But I also would temper it. The true indicator will come Wednesday when he gets re-evaluated."

Until Gregorius returns, the Yankees will desperately miss his offensive production (.268, 27 home runs, 86 RBIs) and slick defense. And although veteranAdeiny Hechavarria,acquired at the waiver trade deadline, will help serve as one fill-in in the field, Torres likely will serve as another, moving at times to short from second base.

Andujar, the third baseman who has had his share of defensive struggles throughout the year, can help the Yankees cover Gregorius' numbers at the plate by keeping up the consistent offensive approach that seemingly makes him a shoo-in for the top rookie honor.

"Mistakes are part of it, and we've had to live with some of those, but the massive production we've gotten from both of those guys and how important they've been to the success of our club is undeniable," Boone said. "We believe that those are two guys that if we're going to win big this year and on into the future, they're going to be right in the middle of it."

Play your game. Never change.

Part of what gives Boone the confidence that Torres and Andujar will remain their locked-in, highly performing selves rests with what they've done in big spots throughout the year.

All season, both players' numbers in late-and-close situations (i.e., the seventh inning or later in games tied or with the Yankees up by a run -- or at least with the tying run on deck) have been eye-popping.

In those scenarios, Torres is batting .313 (20-for-64) with a .864 OPS. In those same situations, Andujar is batting .284 (25-for-88) with eight extra-base hits and a .792 OPS.

Both players also seem to perform better when the Yankees are chasing a lead as opposed to comfortably holding one. Despite both players having more plate appearances in situations when the Yankees are leading, their batting averages, home run totals and OPS figures when trailing all outpace those same categories when they hit with a Yankees lead. Torres also has more RBIs when the Yankees are trailing, and Andujar has 33 RBIs in both scenarios.

"The biggest thing right from the get-go when they first came up here -- and you could see it a little bit in spring training, but especially when they burst on the scene in maybe mid- or late April -- no situation was too big for them," Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner said. "It didn't matter if it was early in the game or late in the day with guys on base, they were always the same guy."

Never change.

Each year when the postseason arrives, even the most dominant players can stray a bit from what made their regular seasons so successful.

The brighter stage and higher stakes of the postseason up the ante, making it harder to focus. The pressure can become overwhelming. And the opposition typically is playing at its highest level of the season, making it that much more challenging.

Look no further than a couple of other young Yankees who struggled in last year's playoffs after having solid regular seasons.

On the heels of his 52-homer rookie of the year campaign, Aaron Judge, who batted .278 in the 2017 regular season, hit only .188 (with four home runs) in the playoffs. Gary Sanchez, who also hit .278 last season while blasting 33 homers, also batted a considerably tamer .208 with three home runs in October.

Like Andujar and Torres, Judge and Sanchez will have to be major factors this postseason if the Yankees are to advance further than they did a year ago, when they lost in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

For Judge, the toughest part of last year's playoffs was keeping his emotions in check. He believes he eventually did that, but it wasn't easy.

"Some of the funnest games I've ever played in my entire life. A lot of nerves, a lot of excitement, butterflies leading up to it," Judge said. "But once the game starts, it's like any other game. The crowd's in it every pitch, but the biggest thing is just slowing down the mind."

How does a ballplayer do that?

"Just remember, it's still 60 feet, 6 inches, it's 90 feet to first.

"Nothing changes."

Play your game.

Torres contends that feeling pressure isn't an issue for him. Sure, he knows the postseason will be unlike anything he has played in before, but he still is expecting to heed Gregorius' advice from April.

"Don't put too many pressures on every at-bat or treat them different," Torres said. "Just be the same guy, and enjoy the moment. It's a beautiful opportunity to play the postseason."

Andujar said his focus will be enhanced beginning with next Wednesday's wild-card game, simply because he has been working for moments like it all season.

"Preparation is big," Andujar said through an interpreter. "When you prepare yourself well, it helps you stay concentrated in what you need to do, and you can focus even more. When you do that, when you concentrate on the things you need to execute and get done, if you can focus on those things, you find a consistency and you find a way to stay calm."

According to Gregorius, Andujar was anything but calm when the Yankees earned a trip to the postseason last weekend. As New York celebrated with sprays of champagne and soggy selfies, the rookie third baseman couldn't contain his glee, the veteran shortstop said.

"He was way too excited. He was like, 'I'm getting ready for the picture. I'm getting ready for the picture,'" Gregorius said, laughing. "But it was fun. That's what you want to see from the guys. Because they're playing for something."

Calm, frazzled, overly enthusiastic or somewhere between all of that, the Yankees' star rookies are looking forward to opening the postseason in the starting lineup. When they do, they expect to carry Gregorius' early-season words with them.

"I expect to give the best I have of myself, and hopefully we can win all those games and keep on moving on," said Andujar, "and at the end be the last team standing."