Yankees’ unlikely cleanup hitter looks like he belongs there

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Aaron Hicks has a simple approach to batting cleanup.

“I’m not going to try to hit like a four-hole hitter,” he said.

The Yankees’ center fielder shouldn’t change that philosophy.

Hitting there for the fourth time this season after never batting fourth in five previous major league seasons, Hicks continued to excel in that spot. With Aaron Judge (wrist) and Gary Sanchez (groin) on the disabled list, Hicks batted there out of necessity, and he came within a triple of the cycle in the Yankee’s 6-3 win over the Royals on Sunday. He drove in two runs with a first-inning home run, scored in the fourth after leading off with a double and also singled and walked.

In four games hitting cleanup, Hicks is 6-for-11 with seven runs scored, five runs driven in and six walks. Of course, he has excelled wherever he’s been in the Yankees lineup, already with a career-high 17 homers and closing in on a career-best in RBIs with 47, five shy of the 52 he posted a year ago. His .851 OPS would be the best he’s produced, slightly better than .847 mark last season in 301 at-bats.

“I’m just trying to get the ball in the air. It’s essentially what it is,” Hicks said. “It’s actually been helping me to not swing at pitches down in the zone for swings and misses. It definitely started last year. It’s been working.”

Hicks got the Yankees off to a strong start, slamming an 0-1 Burch Smith curveball off the right-field foul pole. Ahead in the count the second time he faced Hicks, Smith went back to the breaking ball, and again Hicks made him pay, doubling down the right-field line.

“I can’t really say I was surprised. It was obviously a pitch he felt he could get me out with,” Hicks said. “I was seeing it well. … I can’t really explain it. I’m not the catcher. I wasn’t complaining.”

There have been few complaints about Hicks of late, particularly this month. He’s slashing .246/.398/.523 with a .921 OPS and six homers, as he continues to build off his breakout season of a year ago.

“We’ve seen him take an even bigger step this year, continuing to get on base a lot and the power along with it,” manager Aaron Boone said. “It’s not surprising, frankly.

“This is the kind of talent he has, and we’re seeing a guy that now kind of in the prime of his career has matured into a good all-around player.”

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