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DJ LeMahieu continues to bail out Yankees

Q: Who leads the 2019 Yankees in saves?
A: No disrespect to Aroldis Chapman, but the correct answer is DJ LeMahieu.

Who else would you expect to halt this pinstriped funeral?

Yes, the Yankees remain alive, courtesy of a 4-1 victory over Justin Verlander and the Astros on Friday night in American League Championship Series Game 5 at Yankee Stadium. Now trailing 3-2, they must win two straight at Minute Maid Park these next two nights, with baseball’s best pitcher Gerrit Cole waiting for them in Game 7 on Sunday.

No easy task. Yet it remains a task, rather than a scrapped notion, because LeMahieu, the Yankees’ leadoff man and durable, low-key jack of all trades, changed the direction of this contest and kept it on track, earning once again the “MVP!” chants that graced him here.

“Last night sucked,” LeMahieu said of the Yankees’ gruesome, 8-3 loss in Thursday night’s Game 4. “So for us to respond and keep it alive and get some momentum going was huge.”

The Yankees’ regular-season leader in wins above replacement with 6.0 (courtesy of Baseball-Reference), LeMahieu contributed significantly on both offense and defense, and he received enough help from his friends — notably winning pitcher James Paxton, slugging hero Aaron Hicks and setup man Zack Britton — to ensure that his actions would not go for naught.

The top of the first seemed to pick up from the previous night, the Astros taking a 1-0 lead courtesy of a Paxton wild pitch that Gary Sanchez couldn’t corral. Then LeMahieu flipped the switch: He knocked Verlander’s second pitch of the night, a 94-mph fastball above the knees, over the right-field wall. Tie game. New feel.

DJ LeMahieu
DJ LeMahieu hits a first-inning home run for the Yankees in Game 5.Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

“Just trying to get things going,” LeMahieu said. “We had a tough top of the first inning. Like always, just trying to get things going. But we really needed to get it going today.”

By the end of the first, the Yankees owned a 4-1 lead courtesy of Aaron Hicks’ three-run homer, and there it stayed, Verlander settling down and Paxton going to work, surviving with some help from his friends. In the third, Alex Bregman lined a two-out single to center field, bringing up Yuli Gurriel, who popped the second pitch he saw into foul territory on the right side — deep enough that, as he pursued it from his first-base position, LeMahieu found himself just a few arms’ length from right field umpire Dan Bellino. With his back to home plate, LeMahieu snared the ball as he fell to the ground, holding on as he landed on his side. An appreciative Paxton pounded his glove and pointed to his teammate.

“That was a huge play,” Paxton said.

“A tough play,” Aaron Boone said, “especially on a night like tonight where it’s cold and pop-ups, anytime you’re kind of going and there’s a breeze to track it, and just kind of out-competition the ball. He just competed hard for it to make a big play.”

“I was hoping it was going to stay in,” LeMahieu said. “Definitely wasn’t an easy one. And just kind of used my reactions and glad I came out with it.”

How many times this season did LeMahieu, whose January signing for two years and $24 million enraged many fans who preferred Manny Machado, bail out the Yankees? By agreeing to join the team in the first place despite needing to switch from regular second baseman to super-utility man. By filling in multiple injured infielders. By hitting above league average each of the six months. And here he is, continuing the magic in the playoffs, pushing the Yankees back onto a plane, back toward Houston.

On a Yankees day that featured both the sublime (CC Sabathia being removed from the ALCS, thereby officially ending his legendary career) and the ridiculous (Nick Swisher throwing the ceremonial first pitch? Really?), LeMahieu stood out for his steadiness. The Yankees would be far less steady without him. We might be discussing them in the past tense, rather than the present.

And with the Yankees’ lineup still featuring more holes than the plot of the original “Total Recall,” LeMahieu had best have some saves ready to deliver in the immediate future.