- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- As Derek Jeter came to the plate in the eighth inning of Friday night's game between the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, with the bases loaded, only one man out and facing a pitcher who couldn't find the strike zone with a GPS, the center-field scoreboard displayed the following message:
"Derek leads the American League in infield hits with nine."
No doubt, the message was intended to be complimentary, even uplifting.
But given the circumstances, both of the game and Jeter's season so far, it was more like an insult.
And a summation of his first 23 games.
Jeter did not get an infield hit on that at-bat. He didn't even get his bat on the ball.
Facing Octavio Dotel, who had faced Russell Martin and Brett Gardner ahead of Jeter and walked them both -- placing the Blue Jays' 5-3 lead in extreme jeopardy -- Jeter quickly fell behind, 0-2. He just as quickly worked the count to full, and with the scattershot way Dotel was throwing, another walk, and a forced-in run, seemed likely.
Instead, Jeter chased a high fastball and didn't come close to catching it, the strikeout ending another 1-for-5 night on which his only hit -- you guessed it -- never left the infield.
At that point, Toronto manager John Farrell must have felt he had teased the fates enough. He yanked Dotel, brought in his closer, John Rauch, and four quiet outs later the Blue Jays had their 5-3 victory.
And the Yankees and their fans were left with the same disturbing question they have had since the end of last season: Is this all that is left of Derek Jeter?
Certainly, there are still great moments ahead, or at least one, when he gets his 3,000th career hit, a milestone he nudged closer to with his fifth-inning bunt single off Ricky Romero.
And certainly, he is hardly the main reason the Yankees lost the series opener to the Blue Jays. They lost because they failed to capitalize on a bases-loaded, no-outs threat in the fifth and a bases-loaded, one-out threat in the eighth, of which Jeter's strikeout was only one component.
They lost because David Robertson, having picked Jose Bautista off first a half-inning earlier, froze when he should have fired and then fired into center field. His error allowed one run to score and prolonged the inning enough for Juan Rivera to single in a second run.
Mostly, they lost because their offense, which has been either all or nothing lately, came up empty with runners in scoring position all night long. Alex Rodriguez was the key culprit, stranding five with two strikeouts, a fly out and a back-breaking double play to end that fateful fifth. They also lost because Mark Teixeira popped out with the bases loaded and because Andruw Jones, the DH batting sixth in place of Jorge Posada on this night, and Curtis Granderson, batting right behind him, combined for six strikeouts in their first six at-bats.
On a night in which Freddy Garcia struggled his way through five gritty innings but still left the Yankees in a position to win -- they trailed 3-2 when he left -- there was plenty of blame to be spread around for why they didn't.
But, as Nick Swisher said, "We get bases loaded, nobody out and Tex, Alex and Cano coming up, I got a feeling those guys are gonna get those runs in a lot more than they don't."
In fact, Cano, who scored all three runs and hit two solo home runs, was the only hitter not to blame for this one, and more often than not Teixeira and Rodriguez are going to come through.
But the same can't be said with any degree of confidence about Jeter. Coming off the worst offensive season of his career as an everyday player, Jeter famously went through a swing overhaul with hitting coach Kevin Long late last season, a process that has continued throughout spring training and into the regular season.
A couple of weeks ago, Joe Girardi was asked how long he would need to determine whether the "new approach" Jeter and Long had worked so hard on was making any difference. A hundred to 150 at-bats would be fair, was the manager's answer.
Jeter now has 89 at-bats, 94 plate appearances, not quite up to Girardi's measuring stick but certainly enough to safely hypothesize about what the future holds.
And the only conclusion you can come to is the Jeter you've seen so far is probably close to the only Jeter you are going to get.
This is not a call to bench Jeter, or boo him, or drop him in the lineup. It's simply recognition that the player he seemed to be last season is the player he remains now, and in some ways, he might be a little worse.
Last year, the numbers were .270 BA/10 HRs/67 RBIs, with an on-base percentage of .340 and OPS of .710. This year so far, the numbers are .258/0/5, with an OBP of .323 and OPS of .604.
Obviously, the batting average may creep up a bit and so may the on-base percentage. Where you need to worry is in a couple of other areas. The way he is swinging right now, 10 home runs seems not only unlikely but out of the question.
And the main bugaboo the offseason program with Long was designed to correct, Jeter's troubling propensity to hit the ball on the ground, seems not to be working. Last year, Jeter hit more ground balls than any player in major league baseball (368) and nearly two-thirds of the balls he put in play -- 65.7 percent to be precise -- were hit on the ground.
This year, the percentage has jumped to 75.3. Even more alarming, his percentage of batted balls classified as line drives has plummeted, from 16 percent in 2010 to just over 10 percent through the first month of 2011.
There is just very little pop in his bat so far. And although he has a career batting average of .326 with the bases loaded, he has an eye-popping single hit in his last 25 at-bats in that situation.
The news is not all bad: Jeter's OBP of .330 lands him in the upper half of all major league shortstops, and his batting average and OBP are fourth-best in the American League.
He may not be quite the drag on the lineup his growing legion of critics claim he is -- three of his teammates in the starting lineup Friday night were hitting worse than he is -- but the truth is, at 36 years old, and nearly 37, hardly is Jeter an offensive force any longer.
"It's always frustrating when you don't come through when you have opportunities to put us back in the game," Jeter said, of his final at-bat against Dotel. "But you still like to be in those situations. You feel as though you're going to be successful, but that's not always the case. I'm still confident. You have to be confident. If you don't have confidence you might as well not go up there."
Jeter has never lacked for confidence, even in the face of adversity and failure. It is the quality above all others that made him the player he has been for the past 16 years. It is the quality that is going to make it terribly difficult for him to accept that the player he is now is, give or take a few percentage points either way, likely the player he is going to be.
Right now, leading the league in infield hits may be the only category Jeter has left to call his own.
NOTES: The Yankees left 11 runners on base and were 0-for-8 w/RISP. ... Garcia's first loss of the year evened his record at 1-1. His ERA jumped from 0.69 to 2.00. ... Buddy Carlyle pitched a spotless seventh and Joba Chamberlain did likewise in the eighth. Girardi had Rafael Soriano warming to pitch the ninth if the Yankees had pulled within one run but went to Boone Logan instead after they failed to score in the eighth. ... Teixeira, who missed a game after jamming his right shoulder on a dive Tuesday night, said his shoulder was still sore but felt better. He also sported a gauze patch on his right elbow, another memento of the dive. ... Cano's two home runs gave him the team lead (8) and upped his team-leading RBI total to 21. ... Rodriguez is 3 for his last 21 at-bats. His last home run was on April 13. ... A.J. Burnett (3-1, 3.52) gets the ball Saturday afternoon against RHP Kyle Drabek (2-0, 3.30), first pitch at 4:05 p.m.
Leading the league in infield hits may be the only category Derek Jeter has left.