exclusive

DJ LeMahieu proving to be Yankees’ biggest difference maker

They have lost Giancarlo Stanton for who knows how long due a problem with a hamstring that supports a ripped upper body.

Aaron Judge, who led the AL in homers with nine and RBIs with 20 going into Thursday’s action, missed Wednesday’s game due to lower-body tightness. Aaron Boone was hopeful he would get Judge back for Friday night’s game against the Red Sox, but wasn’t sure late Wednesday night.

Aaron Hicks, Brett Gardner, Gleyber Torres and Brett Gardner are searching for any gear that can lift them out of Hitter’s Hell.

Closer Aroldis Chapman hasn’t thrown a pitch this year and Tommy Kahnle is out for the rest of the year.

J.A. Happ hasn’t been good and James Paxton has been bad two out of three starts.

So why does it feel like the Yankees have enough to hold off the pesky Rays and win the AL East for a second straight season, albeit during a 60-game schedule?

DJ LeMahieuN.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg

Because they have DJ LeMahieu and the Rays don’t. That is how good the 32-year-old right-handed hitting LeMahieu has been this season, which began with him recovering from the coronavirus.

“Pitchers are so predictable, and for guys like LeMahieu who are smart, you get a sense that for them it’s like watching an old sitcom, you know what is coming,’’ said an NL scout.

LeMahieu’s numbers certainly back that evaluation up. LeMahieu’s .431 batting average and .479 on-base percentage were tops in the AL going into Thursday’s schedule, and he was fourth in OPS (1.048).

“I feel pretty locked in right now, just part of a really good lineup and try to do my part to get on base,’’ LeMahieu said after a four-hit game Wednesday night from the leadoff spot. “If I get on base I feel like we are in good shape to score runs.’’

As for the AL East race, the Yankees (12-6) are a game up on the second-place Rays, who put a 17-8 pounding on the rancid Red Sox (6-13) in Fenway Park on Thursday. The 9-7 Orioles were third, two games out, pending their late-afternoon game.

Eighteen games into a season isn’t the usual time to be talking about pennant races. However, when the schedule calls for 60 games and the trading deadline is less than three weeks away, the urgency is real.

By the middle of August in a regular-season pennant race, games played in a packed Yankee Stadium would have would have created a loud buzz. Of course, that is missing, but Boone still believes it feels like a pennant race.

“Obviously missing that noise and the raucous fan base that we have but the edge, the urgency, the butterflies you have, every pitch feels big and that is how you like it,’’ Boone said when asked if the race felt real.

Lately the question of hitting .400 has been thrown at LeMahieu. So, too, has how winning a batting title, which he won as a Rockie in 2016 by hitting .348, will be viewed in a 60-game season.

Coming soon are questions about his future, since LeMahieu can be a free agent following this year’s World Series. There is no telling what baseball’s financial landscape will be, but LeMahieu will be in demand after playing the past two seasons for $12 million each.

“He is a special hitter, a guy who uses the whole field,’’ Boone said of LeMahieu. “He has pop, handles righties and lefties. He is a great hitter, tremendous bat-to-ball skills. He does a great job of laying the bat head in the zone for a really long time.’’