At this point, nothing that Derek Jeter does should surprise anyone. But despite the fact that we’ve seen it all before from The Captain, that didn’t stop plenty of jaws from dropping when he deposited the first pitch that he saw since coming off of the disabled list into the right field seats in Sunday’s much-needed 6-5 walk-off win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
“He’s a movie, is what he is,” manager Joe Girardi said. “You think about his 3,000th hit and how he did that. What he did today; we hadn’t hit a home run since the All-Star break, and we hadn’t hit a right-handed home run in months. For him to come out and do that in his first at-bat, he’s a movie.”
Jeter’s career has been like one big fairy tale, and he added another chapter today. The lack of the long ball has plagued the Yankees all season, and the desperation was reaching a boiling point as they were trying to avoid a sweep against the first-place team in the AL East.
You’ve probably seen the numbers at this point, but they’re worth repeating. It had been nine games since the Yankees last homer, 28 since their last homer from a right-handed batter and they had just two home runs from the shortstop position all season. They came into today’s game ranked 14th out of 15 teams in the American League in total homers, but their whole outlook changed with one swing of the bat.
Jeter homered in the first, Alfonso Soriano homered in the third, and then Soriano provided the final blow with a walk-off single in the ninth.
“When I see Mariano pitch and Jeter hit and me, it feels like old times,” Soriano said. “It’s special to play with those guys because they’re future Hall of Famers.”
It sure was a good day for two guys who the Yankees are hoping will provide this lineup with a huge lift over the next two months, and now we’ll see if this momentum carries over.
“It was fun. I’m tired. That wasn’t a quick game by any stretch of the imagination, but it was fun. I haven’t played short in quite some time here,” Jeter said. “I’ve worked hard to try and get back on the field, and I’m happy that today we were able to win a game and it was uneventful on the physical side.”
• Trust me, Jeter did not want the postgame attention focused on him (he was quick to point out that “this is Matsui’s day”), and his answers were all typical Jeter. He was asked if at any point he’s able to appreciate his knack for the big moment, but of course, he wasn’t taking the bait. “Maybe when the season is over, but I really try not to think about it,” he said. “I try to do whatever I can to help our team win. Even if I didn’t hit a home run, if we won this game, I’d feel the same.”
• While Jeter wasn’t going to focus on his homer — which clearly meant a lot more to this team than just the one-run that it put on the board — others were in awe. “I talked about his presence. His presence just makes it different. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why, but he’s a winner is the bottom line to me,” Girardi said. “It’s a player that has a real grasp of what is expected of him, and that one guy can’t do too much. You have to just do your part. When you’re in the business of trying to do too much, you usually don’t do much of anything. I think he understands that as well as anyone.”
• When Jeter returned for just one game on July 11, he swung on the first pitch and hit an infield single. He had said after the game that he planned on swinging at the first pitch, and was asked if he had the same approach today. “What was I thinking? Swing, like I always think,” he said. “I just wanted to get a pitch to hit, and fortunately, it was a fastball that was up.”
• Jeter’s homer coming off of lefty Matt Moore made it especially significant. The Yankees struggles against lefties have been well-documented this season, but Jeter and Soriano are two guys who are expected to change that. Soriano’s homer also came off of Moore. “We talked about trying to get some right-handed bats here because, against lefties, at times we’ve run out five and six left-handed (batters),” Girardi said. “You get two that have had a lot of success off of lefties, and it changes your lineup.”
• Soriano and Ichiro each finished with four hits apiece, as the Yankees’ three 37-plus year olds (including Jeter) combined to go 10 for 13 with four runs scored and five RBI. The Yanks are clearly dealing with a lot of aging players, and they’ll need them to maintain this kind of production in order to make a real playoff push. “It’s important because of who we’re playing,” Girardi said. “Second half, we’ve played a lot of tough teams and been in a lot of games, but we’ve come up short a little bit. We lose yesterday 1-0, and to be able to win one like that is important; especially going into a road trip like this.”
• A hot topic before the game was the fact that the Yankees are asking Jeter to take it easy on certain plays when running full speed isn’t necessary. That’s obviously against Jeter’s nature, but he spoke about how he’s dealing with it. “I don’t want to learn how to do it,” he said. “I understand I have to do it, especially maybe the first week or two. They’ve told me time and time again to run under control in those types of situations. I feel awkward doing it. I don’t like doing it. I hope nobody watches me do it and they try to do it, you know what I mean? Because I’ve run hard my entire career. I think you can still run hard and run under control. I’m still running hard, but in certain situations, you have to play under control. I haven’t been good at that in my career, but I guess I have no choice here for a few games.”
• Jeter denied that he felt better physically than he did when he first returned on July 11, but Girardi certainly seemed to think that was the case. “I would agree with you wholeheartedly,” he said. “I thought he was running better, and you know, I told him before the game again, ‘You have to take it easy.’ I thought he did a good job of managing that. Now he’ll get a day off, and we’ll get a couple of days out of him in L.A., and he’ll get a day off again. You can kind of build him up. But I thought he was running better this time than the first time.”
• The one negative from today’s game was Phil Hughes. He gave up five runs and didn’t make it out of the fifth inning, with rookie Wil Myers (he’s going to be a good one) homering off of him twice. Hughes is now winless in his last seven starts at Yankee Stadium. “He was up the one inning,” Girardi said. “The couple of home runs that he gave up, the pitches were up. His slider wasn’t as sharp today as it’s been, which led to some troubles for him.”
• Here’s Hughes’ assessment of his outing: “I felt pretty good that first inning. From there, it felt like I started leaving balls up in the zone… It’s disappointing that I wasn’t able to hold the lead twice.”
• Hughes was asked if the upcoming trade deadline is weighing on his mind. “I’ll be going home,” he said. “We have an off day (Monday), which is good. I am going to relax a little bit, but other than that, I don’t really worry about that stuff.”
• I’ll give the final word to Jeter, who was asked what it means to him when people talk about how much his presence means to this club: “I have no idea,” he said. “I’ve been here for a long time. I think people get used to seeing me. I think it’s been kind of odd or awkward for a lot of fans who I’ve talked to that I haven’t been here for this long. I’ve been hurt in my career, I’ve missed some games, but never this much. I don’t know if I’ve missed this many games by injury in my entire career combined. I don’t know exactly what they mean. It feels good to hear it, but it’s not something that I necessarily think about.”
Associated Press photos