Commentary

It's back to business now for Yankees

CC and Jeter sent the Bombers into the break on a roll, optimistic about the second half

Updated: July 12, 2011, 9:16 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Anyone expecting Derek Jeter to show up the day after he got his 3,000th hit begging out of the lineup or looking like he'd celebrated all night should've known better.

The New York Yankees were playing a 1 p.m. game against their division rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays -- their last contest before the All-Star break but the first game of the rest of Jeter's storybook career -- and there was Jeter, back in the starting lineup and batting leadoff again. Business as usual.

The only obvious hint that Sunday was any different was the way Jeter came hustling into the clubhouse about just 90 minutes before the game rather than the usual three hours or so early. By the end of his quick 10-minute talk with reporters by his locker, Jeter was worrying out loud because "I still gotta go to the training room and" -- here he stole a look at the digital clock on the wall while he was tugging on his uniform clothes -- "I'm supposed to be at batting practice right now.

"I'm already five minutes late."

Hearing Jeter talking like that was sort of funny and sort of typical, right?

After all the stadium-rocking cheers and electricity that Jeter created Saturday with his 5-for-5 day and tape-measure homer to left field for his 3,000th hit, Sunday's game could've felt like being at a party venue the morning after all the confetti was swept up and the helium balloons went flat. Except Jeter -- the ultimate gamer -- wasn't willing to give away a day's work and neither was Yanks starter CC Sabathia, who threw a terrific four-hit, complete-game shutout in the Yanks' 1-0 win.

Both men sent the Yankees winging into the All-Star break on a winning streak and feeling good about themselves despite Sunday's news that cleanup hitter Alex Rodriguez will undergo arthroscopic surgery Monday to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Rodriguez could miss at least four to six weeks.

"He'll be missed, he's our cleanup hitter, but other guys have to be able to step up," Jeter said.

One of the reasons the Yankees feel optimistic as they look forward to the second half of the season is other guys have so far stepped up -- no one more than Sabathia, who found out right after striking out the last two batters of Sunday's game that he had made the All-Star game after initially being snubbed. Sabathia, who improved to 13-4 with his six straight win and lowered his 2.72 ERA Sunday, said he had no hard feelings, but he was still skipping the game and heading to the Bahamas as planned for the All-Star break since he wouldn't be able to pitch again by Tuesday's game.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesCC Sabathia finished the first half with 13 wins for the Yankees.

Asked what time his getaway flight was, Sabathia, who was still icing his arm, laughed and said, "Five o'clock" -- or just 90 minutes away.

For Jeter, who is also skipping the game to rest, the break also comes at a good time. He said he really didn't do much celebrating of his 3,000th hit Saturday night because, "I knew we had a game to play today and" -- droll smile -- "I don't recover as fast as I used to."

The reason it took him a little longer to get to the clubhouse for Sunday's game was because, as you might imagine, everyone was treating him like the groom at a wedding on his way into the stadium. People wanted to talk to him, shake his hand, tell him something they hadn't been able to personally tell him on Saturday in all the craziness. He had the Yanks' go-ahead hit in addition to a startling, tape-measure homer to left field for his 3,000 hit -- just his first homer at Yankee Stadium this year. Amazing? Sure. And yet no one who knows him was completely surprised.

Jeter said Stan Musial, a fellow member of the 28-man 3,000 hit club, sent his regards through an intermediary. Reggie Jackson sent his congratulations, too. Jeter said he also heard from "a lot -- I mean a lot" of other baseball folks, ex-teammates and friends. On his way into the Stadium on Sunday he ran into Yogi Berra, whose expert analysis Saturday amid all the inside-baseball talk about how much better Jeter is driving the ball since he's been back from the disabled list, was simply this: "I just wanna give him a hug."

So?

"Yeah, he got me," Jeter said with a smile. "It's always nice to see Yogi."

The other Yankees players have never said Jeter's march to 3,000 was a distraction. But it still felt as though something had lifted around the team by Sunday anyway. The emphasis is more squarely back now on the division race, and how the Yanks can figure out a way to stay in the AL East hunt without A-Rod now as well as Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano and Eric Chavez.

Jeter finished 1-for-4 on Sunday with a bunt single, and he didn't play a part in the Yankees' only run. But after all the negative talk about everything from whether the Yanks would be better off with Eduardo Nunez at short or whether Jeter still deserves to bat leadoff for the Yanks instead of Brett Gardner, Jeter picked up something besides his 3,000 hit in the past couple days.

It feels like the vocal support for him in the clubhouse has never been higher this year.

Saturday helped trigger it. Saturday was one of those time-capsule performances that reminded everyone how great Jeter was in his prime, how dangerous he's been in the clutch, and how graceless the way he sometimes gets ripped now can seem. And more than ever, some of his teammates and Yanks manager Joe Girardi were talking pointedly in the past two days about the "negativity" around Jeter so far this year.

Jorge Posada, Jeter's best friend on the team, added, "What we feel about Derek Jeter hasn't changed in here."

Posada admittedly teared up as he waited for Jeter to touch home plate after his 3,000th hit. He said the slow starts he and Jeter both had this year have made it "tough at times to enjoy the season. But I think he understands [the scrutiny]. We [older Yankees] still have to produce, that's the bottom line."

Still, even if Jeter is used to criticism, Jeter seems less concerned about letting people know he doesn't have to like all of it.

As he was winding up his remarks by his locker before Sunday's game, a reporter asked Jeter whether he thought reaching 3,000 hits would lessen some of the "scrutiny" he's been dealing with because of his "advancing age," and Jeter cut him off.

"It didn't take long, huh?" Jeter said with a tight smile.

"One day," he added, shaking his head in disbelief.

The reporter tried to continue, but Jeter cut him off again, saying, "I don't pay attention to it, man. I guess it depends on how you're writing it."

Then, getting up now to finish getting dressed, Jeter -- still smiling a little -- dismissed everyone by saying: "And we'll end on that note."

But it doesn't end there.

After what the Yankees showed in the first half of the season, anyone who writes off a Jeter mini-resurgence or the Yankees' chances of winning the AL East does so at their peril even with A-Rod out for a bit.

As Jeter and Sabathia reminded anyone who watched the Yankees this weekend, business as usual around here often means accomplishing the unusual.

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