Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bill Madden: Cold Comfort for Hot Jeter

The New York Daily News
April 27, 2006

A couple of hours before game time, Derek Jeter was rummaging through his locker in search of a satisfactory pair of socks when a visitor approached and he looked.

"What's the weather out there?" he asked.

"Very cold and windy," he was told.

Jeter frowned.

"I don't know what it is," he said. "All the time we were away it seemed it was in the 70s here but since we've been home, it's been like this almost every day."

At that point, a bit of debate arose in the clubhouse as to whether hitters or pitchers benefit from cold, inclement weather.

"The hitters, definitely," said Mariano Rivera. "I hate the cold."

"Without doubt the pitchers," said Jeter. "No hitter likes hitting when it's cold like this."

Considering his .384 average, however, Jeter seemed to be the last person who should be complaining about the weather. As Don Zimmer, his old mentor and favorite foil who is now a special adviser with the visiting Devil Rays, observed: "Don't matter what the circumstances are, he's gonna get his 200 hits and he just gets better and better."

There can hardly be much argument with that. Last year was Jeter's fourth 200-hit season, the second-most of any Yankee in history other than Lou Gehrig (who had eight). And with 27hits in his first 69 at-bats entering last night, Jeter was off to his best start this season since 1999.

But it's been much more than just the quantity of hits as it's been the quality of both his hits and his at-bats. Everything he hits seems to be hit hard. Eight of his 18 RBI have either tied the score or given the Yankees a lead and his 16 walks put him among the league leaders. In the eyes of his teammates, he's about as locked in as they've ever seen him.

"What I've noticed especially," said Bernie Williams, "is the way he's been hitting the ball with authority to the opposite field. Plus, he's on in all his at-bats."

Of course, the season is not even a month old, which is maybe why Jeter downplays his torrid start. When asked what might account for it - returning to the second slot? Some new secrets from hitting coach Don Mattingly? - he shrugged.

"I don't pay attention to my stats," he insisted, "only whether we win."
And then he offered a parallel.

"The only reason what you do now gets noticed more is because there's so little to go on," Jeter said. "You look up at that scoreboard and see some really big batting averages - and some really ugly ones too. I just remember a couple of years ago when I was in that real bad slump in the middle of the season. It didn't wear on me nearly as much as it might have because I had enough padding in there."

Such is the fickle nature of a game in which a highly successful hitter is one who fails two-thirds of the time. Jeter is probably smart not to put too much stock in his hot bat amid the April cold, and rather just enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

Joe Torre will tell you that as long as he's been Yankee manager, he's come to expect good things every time Jeter comes to bat. Asked last night if this was about as "locked in" as he's ever seen his shortstop, Torre winced.

"Don't jinx him," he implored. "All I'll say is right now he's swinging the bat real good. His arms are extended and it doesn't seem to matter where he is in the count."

At the same time, Torre was quick to scoff at any suggestion that restoring Jeter to his old No. 2 hole in the lineup, within a cocoon of Johnny Damon's speed in front of him and the power of Gary Sheffield behind him, was partly responsible for his early resurgence.

"That has nothing to do with it," Torre said. "With Derek, it's never mattered where he bats in the lineup and he's always had protection. Remember, when he batted leadoff, we had Alex (Rodriguez) No.2. He's always been surrounded by quality hitters. That's what George Steinbrenner does for you here."

One can only wonder what Steinbrenner thought of his expensive hitters last night after they squandered 14 walks and stranded 16 runners in losing 4-2 in 10 innings to the banged up D-Rays. Jeter had two of those walks and a base hit to set the stage for the final-inning bases-loaded Yankee crap-out, but it was Rivera who surrendered the decisive Tampa Bay runs in the top of the inning when he got too many of his fastballs over the middle of the plate.

So from the Yankees' standpoint, in terms of the weather debate, they were both right. It was enough to leave anyone in pinstripes cold.

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