By Sweeny Murti
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Two home runs by the resurgent Captain and a 6-run outburst in the 8th inning Sunday helped mask the play on a road trip that was pretty ugly at times for the Yankees—bad base running, bad fielding, and bad hitting for the most part.

That last part is why, as the Yanks came to the end of their trip, I sat down with Hitting Coach Kevin Long Sunday morning before the final game in Texas. (Keep in mind the breakout performance by Derek Jeter that came a few hours later as you listen to Long’s comments).

We started by getting a quick synopsis of the nine regulars in the lineup:

Then it was time to get into specifics, starting with the Captain, who everyone agreed had been swinging the bat better in the last week:

Long and Jeter made headlines this spring as they tinkered with the swing that produced over 2,900 hits. The “no-stride” approach didn’t work too well early on. On April 20th, through his first 64 at-bats, Jeter was hitting .219. Since then, in 59 at-bats, Jeter is batting .339, with a pair of four-hit games (one more than he had all last season). His season average is now up to .276, higher than every Yankee regular except Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson.

Jeter hasn’t completely thrown out the ideas behind the no-stride approach; he’s simply modified it into a hybrid with his old style. Jeter is tapping his front foot and striding slightly forward, but not diving towards the plate as he had for so many years. Long says it’s simply a process to get Jeter as comfortable as possible:

Jorge Posada has been the symbol of frustration to this point, batting only .152. His early power surge (6 HR in first 55 AB) has given way to a hitter who began to question his own spot in the lineup a few days ago, thanking Joe Girardi for sticking with him through the worst start of his career. Long hopes Posada has bottomed out and says he has shown some signs of life:

Alex Rodriguez looked like a Triple Crown and MVP candidate the first couple weeks of the season, but has cooled off considerably. Some wondered if the minor oblique injury that forced A-Rod to miss two games last month had anything to do with the slump, but Rodriguez attributed it this week to a “disconnect” in his swing. Long narrows that down to the leg-kick, a timing mechanism that he says is higher than at any point in the last five years:

Rodriguez was just 1-for-4 with an infield single on Sunday, but Long said afterward there was definite progress made in reducing the leg kick and he isn’t too far from turning it back around.

Of course the Yankees have had some guys hit very well so far, including Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson. Russell Martin also got off to a good start.

But it seems that the only time the Hitting Coach gets any attention is when the hitters aren’t hitting. The fallback position for the critics is to give the player all the credit when he does well and the coach all the blame when he struggles. That’s not an easy existence, but it’s one the thick-skinned Long has gotten used to:

As a team the Yankees have yet to find their stride offensively, although when they do make noise they do it loudly—with home runs. The Yanks lead the league in home runs, and at one point they were scoring about 60% of their runs via home runs. That again leads some critics to point out that the Yanks are too reliant on the home run ball, an argument that Long doesn’t give much credence:

Long is now serving his fifth year as Hitting Coach for the Yanks, the longest tenure in that role since Chris Chambliss from 1996-2000. Long’s story is one of perseverance, spending almost two decades in the minor leagues as player and coach before reaching the big leagues with the Yankees.

Long’s “long” road to the majors is the main subject of his new book, “Cage Rat,” with co-author Glen Waggoner. Filled with anecdotes about his journey to the big leagues and the philosophies that have made him one of the more respected men in his field, Long told me how the book came about:

“Cage Rat” is published by Harper Collins, and is available everywhere books are sold.

Sweeny Murti

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