Commentary

Jeter shows signs of life at the plate

Derek's dearth of extra-base hits a concern, but hard-hit balls Tuesday bode well

Updated: May 4, 2011, 2:13 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

DETROIT -- Derek Jeter had 2,951 major-league hits entering Tuesday night's game between the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park, so the fact that he singled off Brad Penny in his first at-bat of the game was hardly remarkable.

But the fact that it was a line-drive single to center, and a sharply hit one at that, was unusual this season, to say the least.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireDerek Jeter hasn't homered since Aug. 24 -- nearly 250 at-bats.

Then, with two out and a runner on first in the seventh inning of a relatively close game, Jeter again hit the ball on the screws only to see it disappear into the glove of first baseman Miguel Cabrera.

It was just another out in a game the Yankees would go on to lose 4-2, but for Jeter, it was the first sign that perhaps things were finally beginning to turn around for him this season.

"Well, you have to go by how you feel," Jeter said. "Obviously, you're not happy with the results, but the more balls you hit hard and the better you feel. Right now, I feel good."

On a night in which the Yankees' offense made Brad Penny look like a million bucks, Jeter's two hard-hit balls qualified as offensive highlights of a sort, along with Russell Martin's RBI double in the fourth and Mark Teixeira's solo home run in the eighth.

That's how bad the Yankees hit Tuesday night, and how bad Jeter hit for the first month of the season.

Now, even though the average is still too low (.250) and the ground ball percentage way too high (75 percent), the fact that Jeter hit the ball hard, if not particularly far, is considered a step in the right direction.

Why, it was only three hours earlier that both manager Joe Girardi and hitting coach Kevin Long, two of Jeter's staunchest defenders in the organization, brought themselves to admit what has been obvious to every objective observer over the first 27 games of the season -- that despite all the tinkering and work that has gone into making an improvement over his dismal 2010 season, Jeter's bat still shows an alarming lack of pop.

"When you look at the numbers, you say, 'Where are the extra-base hits?'" Long said. "That's probably the one part of this whole thing we could say, we need to get a little bit better there. We have to start driving the ball."

Girardi tried to put a more positive spin on it, but the gist was the same.

"Derek hits a lot of ground balls, we all know that," he said. "But ground balls are going to get through infields, and guys are going to get hits. The bottom line is, he's getting hits. He's finding a way to get his hits and that's the important thing."

Jeter started the game with a line-drive single to center off Penny, his 26th hit of the season. But 10 of those hits have been infield singles -- he leads the league in that category -- and only two of them have been extra-base hits, both doubles. He has not hit a home run since Aug. 24, a stretch of 242 at-bats.

Long theorized Jeter's lack of power was due to not using the lower half of his body. "When you look at a guy's swing, and there's no oomph or power or something behind it, you go to their lower half to see what it's doing," Long said. "That's where it comes from."

After the game, Jeter -- who has largely refused to discuss his swing or the adjustments made to it since spring training -- felt comfortable enough with the subject to briefly address the issue.

"Well, you know we made some adjustments early on in the spring and then we sorta went back to some old ways," he said. "Now it's a matter of getting my timing. I adjusted to having more time and now I have to go back to how I used to be. It's taken a while but right now, I feel good."

In spring training, Long and Jeter famously tried to eliminate his stride in an attempt to shorten his swing and increase his bat speed, one of the key reasons he hit more ground balls last season than any player in baseball.

But despite all their efforts, Jeter has so far hit ground balls at a higher rate than he did last year, and only 10 of his batted balls were classified as line drives.

And for the first time all season, Jeter acknowledged Tuesday night that his results so far have been less than he had hoped.

"I can't change anything now that happened in the first month of the season," he said. "Yeah, I didn't swing the bat well, probably because I was swinging with just my arms and wasn't using my legs. I think as of late I've been using my legs a lot better."

As a result, he hit the ball sharply twice Tuesday night even if he came away with only one hit to show for it. "I think that's a key for everybody," Jeter said of getting more of his lower body into his swing. "It's easily said but sometimes it's kinda hard to figure it out. But I like where I'm at right now."

Where he is, is 20 points below his final average for 2010, which was the lowest of his career since he bcame an everyday player in 1996. His on-base percentage of .310 is 30 points below his final number last year, also a career low.

Still, Jeter believes he is on the right track and so does Girardi.

"Some people say you gotta give a guy 500 at-bats to evaluate him," said the manager, who earlier in the season had asked to see Jeter for 100-150 at-bats before offering a judgment. "You're talking about a guy who's going to get 600 at-bats. I never short-change any of my players. I don't really want to judge a guy on one-sixth of his at-bats."

Girardi, in fact, retains his optimism that even if Jeter will never return to the numbers of his peak seasons -- he hit .349 in 1999 and a surprising .334 in 2009 -- he can still put up more-than-respectable numbers this season.

"I'm not ready to say that this is who he is," Girardi said of the Jeter hitting a soft .255 entering Tuesday. "I still think he can be a .300 hitter and be extremely productive for us."

NOTES: CC Sabathia didn't pitch well -- seven innings of 10-hit, four-run ball -- but he kept his team in the game long enough to see them run their way out of it. First, Andruw Jones was foolishly sent home on Brett Gardner's fly to shallow right, and was easily thrown out at the plate to end the fourth inning. Then, the Yankees outdid themselves in the sixth as first Robbie Cano and later Jorge Posada were gunned down on the basepaths to kill off a rally before it could even get started. Cano tried to advance on a ball that bounced away from catcher Alex Avila, but stopped dead in the baseline when Avila recovered the ball. He was easily erased in a rundown. Then, with two out and Jones batting, Posada tried to steal second and was caught by pitcher Brad Penny to end the inning. Needless to say, Girardi was miffed, especially by Posada's mental error. ... Freddy Garcia (1-1, 2.00) gets the ball for Wednesday night's game, facing RHP Max Scherzer (4-0, 3.82). First pitch at 7:05 p.m. ET.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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