The New York Daily News
2 September 2006
He says he doesn't even think about it, but you know that can't be true. After all these years, there is plenty of evidence that Derek Jeter is genuine about putting winning above all individual pursuits, but that doesn't mean he isn't human.
That doesn't mean he didn't get a kick out of putting on a little show for Joe Mauer, the man he's chasing for what would be his first batting title.
It's not only that he went 3-for-5 last night, raising his average to .342 to inch a little closer the Twins' catcher. But he did it in classic Jeter style, killing the Twins not just with singles, but with a perfectly executed hit-and-run single that ignited the big fifth inning that put away an 8-1 victory last night.
It was another example of why maybe you need to watch Jeter play every day to understand how he can be a legitimate MVP candidate with just 12 home runs. Around the country, you still hear that Jeter is the beneficiary of New York hype, that he would just be another good player if he was playing in, say, Minnesota.
But it has never been further from the truth than in this season. For one thing, he is hitting .389 with runners in scoring position, second in the AL to Mauer. And he does have 83 RBI, which is no Punch-and-Judy season.
Perhaps most important, his clutch hitting was crucial in keeping the Yankees from sagging under the weight of the all their injuries in May, June and July.
Surely people who watch baseball are ready to embrace Jeter's day-to-day brilliance. We're supposed to be out of the steroids era, after all, and impact doesn't have to be about hitting home runs.
For all of his flaws, Alex Rodriguez will always get more oohs and aahs than Jeter when he suddenly finds his stroke again and hits two home runs, as he did last night. The first one was a laser to left field that gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead and also gave the suddenly caring Stadium fans another chance to embrace A-Rod with a huge ovation, as they now seem to be on a mission to nurse him back to health.
But the point is, neither of the home runs was the most important hit of the night. That came off Jeter's bat, and it was a jam shot that barely crawled through the right side of the infield.
The thing was, it wasn't lucky. Johnny Damon was running on the pitch, and with second baseman Nick Punto moving to cover second, Jeter fought off an inside fastball from Carlos Silva with an inside-out swing from the hit-and-run manual that squeaked through the spot that Punto had vacated.
"Derek's the best in the game at that," said Damon. "That was huge. Give us first and third with the big guys coming up, we'll take that any day."
The first "big guy" to bat was Bobby Abreu. Before the game, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was talking about Abreu, and how he has made the Yankee lineup, with its work-the-count philosophy, even more of a nightmare for pitchers, particularly young ones like he has.
"That's the Yankee way," Gardenhire said. "It seems like every Yankee at-bat takes five minutes."
Then Gardenhire sighed the sigh of a small-market manager.
"It's hard to believe you can go out and get Abreu," he said. "Not too many teams can. Abreu is like the rest of them. He's a very professional hitter.
"That's why we talk to our pitchers about pitching to contact, working ahead in the count. If you get behind against these guys, they'll eat you alive. You've gotta attack their hitters, and if they hit it, they hit it."
With runners at first and third, Silva didn't have any choice. And the Yankees made him pay. Abreu singled to center to drive in Damon, and before the inning was over, A-Rod and Robinson Cano had added RBI singles as well, to turn the game into a 6-0 rout.
But it was Jeter's ability to handle the bat that set up the entire inning. It wasn't his only contribution, either. In the third inning, he singled and stole second, setting up the Yankees' second run of the game as Abreu singled him home.
It was all the more noticeable because Mauer was at the ballpark. Mauer, who was 1-for-2 last night and remains at .350, has gradually come down from the .380 he was hitting during the first half of the season, and since even young catchers feel the wear and tear of a season in September, you have to like Jeter's chances of catching him.
Jeter has never won a batting title, and you believe him when he says that all he wants is another ring. But he's too competitive not to want the individual accolade, and what's wrong with that, anyway?
Perhaps most significant, the batting title might make people who don't see him every day take notice, and make them realize he doesn't have to hit home runs to deserve an MVP.
Originally published on September 2, 2006