Gio Urshela did everything he could to make his return to Cleveland memorable.
The third baseman came up through the Indians’ organization and broke into the majors with Cleveland, and on Wednesday he hit a grand slam that gave the Yankees the lead and scored the go-ahead run in the Bombers’ series-clinching 10-9 win in Game 2 at Progressive Field. He also made a terrific diving play to end the bottom of the eighth and keep the Yankees’ deficit at one run with Aroldis Chapman on the mound.
“He was probably the star of the game among many big-time performances,’’ Aaron Boone said after the Yankees advanced to the ALDS in San Diego.
Urshela called it “one of the best games I ever played in my life.”
It would be hard to argue. His single in the top of the ninth sparked their rally and he scored on DJ LeMahieu’s single. Urshela’s fourth-inning grand slam off right-hander James Karinchak gave the Yankees a 5-4 lead.
It came after Aaron Hicks started the inning off Cleveland starter Carlos Carrasco with a triple over the head of Delino DeShields. Luke Voit and Giancarlo Stanton walked to load the bases.
Acting manager Sandy Alomar Jr. went to the bullpen for Karinchak, who went to a full count against Urshela before Urshela took him deep on a fastball with a shot that traveled 432 feet.
Afterward, Urshela said he didn’t know what was going through his mind as he rounded the bases.
“To be honest, I can’t remember,’’ Urshela said. “I just remember I hit the ball and then was giving high-fives to my teammates.”
He almost topped it with his play on Carlos Santana’s shot to third, which Urshela stopped and he made a throw to second from the ground to start the double play.
“It’s no secret, we all know what Gio is capable of,’’ Chapman said through an interpreter. “I really think he saved the game there. If the ball goes by him, at least one run comes in. It was an amazing play.”
The first time Urshela played in the postseason, he was an all-field, no-hit third baseman for the Indians who went on to make two key errors in the 2017 ALDS that helped the Yankees advance.
Now, he’s a much different player.
Asked prior to Game 2 how he’s grown since his time with the Indians, Urshela said, “I guess a lot. I feel like a different player [with a] different mentality.”
The improvements have come on both sides of the ball and persuaded the Yankees to stick with Urshela even after Miguel Andujar returned to health this season.
And he continues to impress his teammates, including DJ LeMahieu, who likened Urshela’s play at third to Nolan Arenado.
LeMahieu played with the perennial All-Star and Gold Glove-winner in Colorado before coming to The Bronx before last season.
“He’s a special defender,’’ LeMahieu said. “I’d put him in the Nolan category defensively. Offensively, it seems like he hits the ball hard every time up. He’s been big for us all year. He’s just a really good player. I really respect his game.”
It’s a long way from 2018, when Urshela was designated for assignment by the Indians and then traded to the Blue Jays in May. Later that season, Toronto shipped Urshela to the Yankees for cash considerations, about $25,000.
The investment has paid off for the Yankees.
“He makes some acrobatic plays you think he has no chance on and is consistent on balls right at him,” LeMahieu said.
Boone has marveled at Urshela while managing him the last two seasons.
“He has a really strong and really accurate arm from a lot of different angles,’’ Boone said. “He has good hands. And I feel like this year, his range has ticked up. He’s special at third base. It’s fun to watch.”
And while the defensive metrics haven’t always agreed that Urshela is well above average at the position, Boone said the Yankees’ internal measurements have shown an improvement.
“He’s pretty elite over there,’’ Boone said.