By Sweeny Murti
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“He’s been a good player for a long time, so you knew this was bound to happen.”—CC Sabathia
Derek Jeter can still hit.
And I think the collective sighs of relief from all corners actually helped pick up the wind currents in Texas and pushed a few more balls over the fence, including Francisco Cervelli’s second career home run, a grand slam.
Jeter’s 4-hit performance Sunday in Arlington seems like the breakout we’ve waited for throughout the first five weeks of this season.
“Everybody needs a day like this,” Jeter said Sunday. “I told you, I just want to be comfortable, and if you’re comfortable the hits will come.”
Jeter didn’t just give you a glimmer of hope Sunday. He announced very loudly that he’s not done yet. And it wasn’t all just talk among fans and media fueling the premature stories of Jeter’s demise. He wasn’t passing the eye test—you could see that Jeter wasn’t catching up to good fastballs, that he was barely making enough contact to get the ball past the pitcher’s mound in some at-bats, let alone drive the ball to the gaps or over the fence.
But when Jeter and Hitting Coach Kevin Long kept talking about his achievement of a comfort level being a process, this is what they were talking about. It was a slow build that really started to pick up last week in Detroit when Jeter hit safely in all three games he played there.
“He said he feels like spring training is officially over,” Long told me Sunday morning (before Jeter’s breakout game). “Spring training, you use that to kind of get back in the groove, to get your feel back…and he feels finally like he’s got that out of the way. That thinking process is over and he can go up there and just have a battle with the pitcher.”
Those pitchers the Yankees have faced lately have all been pretty good. It can’t be a coincidence that Jeter entered Sunday’s game batting .256 and was in the same neighborhood as Curtis Granderson (.266), Mark Teixeira (.252), Alex Rodriguez (.263), and Russell Martin (.264), with all the other Yankee regulars far below. It wasn’t just Jeter—the Yankees as a whole have struggled to hit.
But because Jeter is 36, less than two months away from 37, and because he hit a career-low .270, and because the Yankees signed him to a 3-year deal in the winter, there is so much more scrutiny on every ground ball. An out isn’t just an out. It’s ANOTHER out. And it’s ANOTHER day without hitting the ball hard. Was this just a slump, or was it the beginning of the end?
“I think sometimes people are very quick to judge,” Joe Girardi said after Sunday’s game. “It’s good to see him hit those home runs to drive the ball…we’re pleased, and let’s hope there are a lot more good days like this.”
While doubt was starting to creep into all of our minds about what Jeter could do, it did not in the Yankee clubhouse. Players like Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Alex Rodriguez have seen Jeter do too much over the years to make judgments a little over a month into the season. And some of the other Yankee stars like Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Nick Swisher were all still in high school when Jeter became a star with the Yankees. They know all too well the kind of player he is and the kind of work he puts in to think that his skills would vanish that quickly.
“We all have a lot of belief in Derek, and what he’s capable of doing, and what he’s done, and how he’s persevered his whole career,” Girardi said. “It’s just who he is. He’s a tough minded kid who comes to play every day.”
Jeter has more four-hit games now (two) than he did all last season. He’s never had a pair of four-hit games this early in the season. His home run drought is over after 259 at-bats dating back to last August. Since bottoming out at .219 on April 20th, Jeter is batting .339 over his last 14 games, has hit safely in his last 6 games, and has lifted his season average to .276.
I wrote last week that in my mind Jeter’s magic number is .275, that if he can stay around or above that mark he can maintain a peaceful existence. Otherwise, we would all continue to break down every Jeter at-bat. He’s now bought himself a little breathing room. For instance, in his final two at-bats Sunday, Jeter grounded weakly to the pitcher and the second baseman. The fact that he was 4-for-4 to that point meant nobody said a word.
Whether we like Derek Jeter or not, we are all guilty of reading into every single at-bat this year and trying to figure out if it tells us anything about the type of year he’s going to have. At least for a little while on Sunday, he gave us flashes of his old self, and when it was all over we could all just let a groundout be a groundout, and nothing more.
Is Jeter back? Let Sweeny know in the comments below…