MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Gregorius continues ascension in WBC 2017

Yankees shortstop is coming off best season of Major League career in '16

Gregorius continues ascension in WBC 2017

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The last time Didi Gregorius played at Salt River Fields, he was trying to make the D-backs' roster. That was 2014, and he started the year in the Minors.

Gregorius returned on Saturday as a member of Team Netherlands, having ascended to the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic for the second straight tournament. The Dutch will open the semifinals against Team Puerto Rico on Monday night at Dodger Stadium at 9 p.m. ET, live on MLB Network and MLB.TV. Right-hander Rick van den Hurk is expected to face Puerto Rico's Hiram Burgos.

"This has been great. Everybody sees what we're doing," Gregorius said before the Netherlands' 12-5 loss to the D-backs on Saturday. "We've got a great group of guys, guys who've known each other since we were kids. It's just been awesome to be here with all these guys. It's really been a great run for us."

Gregorius is a big part of that process. Having replaced future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter at shortstop for the Yankees, he's all grown up.

"They've all grown up," said Hensley Meulens, the Netherlands' manager in each of the past three Classics, including this year.

Four years ago, the Dutch were considered an upstart as they headed into AT&T Park to face the Dominican Republic in the semifinals. The Dutch lost, 4-1, and the Dominicans won the title, sweeping all eight games in the tournament.

This time, the Netherlands has as good a chance as any to win the Classic. The Dutch added Gregorius to the group this year, and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen joined the team on Saturday.

"This is the point where you're getting the cream of the crop, the best teams left in the tournament," Meulens said. "We just ran into a really hot Dominican team the last time, just like we're going to run into a really hot Puerto Rican team on Monday night. We know that. Our team is better. Our guys are more experienced."

The lanky Gregorius is now 27. He was born in Amsterdam, but like many of his teammates, he lives in Curacao, an island in the Dutch Caribbean. Fourteen players on what is now formally called the Kingdom of the Netherlands team hail from Curacao, including Jansen and Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, as well as the 49-year-old Meulens, a former utility man and the current hitting coach for the Giants.

Gregorius' RBI double

With Red Sox shortsop Xander Bogaerts, Simmons and Gregorius, the Netherlands has three of the American League's best young shortstops. It was clear from the start that the two-time Gold Glove Award-winning Simmons would start at short. Bogaerts moved to third, a position he played as a rookie in 2013.

"It's not something we discuss," said Gregorius, who moved to second base. "The lineup is up to the manager. We just have to go with those decisions and whatever the lineup is he makes."

After the spring of 2014 with the D-backs, Gregorius was sent to Triple-A Reno to learn second base. A left-handed hitter, then D-backs manager Kirk Gibson played Gregorius sporadically upon his return to the Majors, rarely letting him face left-handed pitching. Consequently, he hit .226 in 80 games and .137 in 51 at-bats against southpaws.

Gregorius was still an excellent defensive shortstop. He was traded that offseason to the Yankees in a three-way trade with the Tigers. Gregorius arrived at Yankee Stadium as the heir apparent to Jeter. Yanks manager Joe Girardi opted to stay with him through some tough times and his performance quickly improved.

"My first thoughts about him was that he was a little bit pull oriented and out of control offensively," said Torey Lovullo, the D-backs' manager who was the Red Sox's bench coach the past four seasons. "Defensively, he was at the top of the class. As he got toward the back end of that first year [in 2015], he started using the entire field and had some pop. He was a totally different player than when I first saw him. And that's continued."

Outlook: Gregorius, SS, NYY

To Lovullo's point, Gregorius was a .324 hitter against left-handers and a .276 hitter overall with 20 homers and 70 RBIs in 2016.

"The Yankees gave me a lot of experience," Gregorius said. "That's what actually helped me. Everything helps. Joe gave me a lot of opportunities. So I try to play my best every time I go out there. I'm just trying to learn the game, that's what I'm trying to do. It's just an honor for me to be there."

And to be here with the Dutch this deep in the tournament.

The World Baseball Classic runs through Wednesday. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.