Commentary

Cap'n gets his crunch back in Texas

Jeter washed up? Derek erases doubts, at least for one day, with pair of round-trippers

Updated: May 9, 2011, 11:37 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- One game doesn't change the tenor of a season any more than one month alters the legacy of a career.

It would be just as easy to overreact to Derek Jeter's Mother's Day bash -- four hits, two of them home runs, three RBIs and a suddenly healthy .276 batting average in the Yankees' 12-5 win over the Texas Rangers -- as it has been to overreact to the first 30 games of his 2011 season.

But boy, isn't it more fun, and uplifting, to go bananas in a positive way, to see the game he had on Sunday afternoon at Rangers Ballpark as the beginning of a productive 2011 season than to see his horrid April as the dismal end of a great career?

So it is with that kind of attitude in mind that we take the events of May 8 as the real starting point of Jeter's 2011 season, not the 30 games that led up to it, and led many to believe that the Yankees' 36-year-old shortstop and captain was stumbling through his final lap.

In fact, we can turn the clock back a day, to Saturday night, and Jeter's second at-bat of the night, when he sent a line drive soaring into the Texas night only to see it smack hard against the left-field wall about a foot shy of what has seemed to be an unattainable place for him this season: Home Run Land.

The Yankees would wind the clock back even further, to the otherwise ill-fated road trip to Detroit, where even though the team played poorly (1-3) and the needle on the daily Jeter Meter didn't move all that much (he had four hits in 13 at-bats and hovered around .250 all week), the team saw definite signs of progress in Jeter's swing.

But Sunday, there could no longer be any doubt that whatever Jeter has been doing in those tape and cage sessions with hitting coach Kevin Long, something has suddenly kicked in. Or maybe not so suddenly.

"Everybody needs a day like this," said Jeter, who certainly needed it more than most. "I felt good in Detroit. I was hitting the ball the other way, hitting the ball where it's been pitched, I've been having some good at-bats, and it carried over to here. Sometimes it's not as easy as we make it look."

And sometimes, it looks even harder than it already is. But Jeter made it look easy again on Sunday, singling in his first two at-bats against Dave Bush, the second driving in the Yankees' first run of the game after CC Sabathia & Co. had allowed the Rangers to run off a 4-0 lead, and then following with line-drive home runs in his next two at-bats about which there was no doubt.

They weren't the biggest hits of the game -- that honor goes to Francisco Cervelli, who, making a rare start in place of Russell Martin, belted a 3-2 pitch from Cody Eppley with the bases loaded in the eighth inning to bust a 6-5 game wide open.

Cervelli's shot may have won the day but in the overall scheme of this Yankees season, Jeter's shots may do more to help them win their division.

"That first one's always the hardest to get, it seems like," Jeter said. "The first home run, the first hit, the first everything. It feels good to hit one, but I don't sit around thinking about home runs. I'm not going to be catching Babe Ruth, you know?"

The first one came off Bush, a right-hander, and chased him from the game in the fifth inning. The second came off Arthur Rhodes, a lefty, and left the park at its deepest point, the corner where the center-field and right-field fences meet, 407 feet from home plate.

Just like that, Jeter wiped out a 259 at-bat homerless drought stretching back to last Aug. 24, and began a home-run-hitting string that lasted two at-bats. He also posted his first multi-homer game since last June 12.

But most important, he erased the doubts, at least for one day, from the minds of those who believed he was washed up, as well as beating back whatever doubts had begun to creep up in his own.

"It wears on you," Long said. "There's some satisfaction involved because the guy's been busting his tail to get over the hump. He's been feeling a lot better but hasn't had a lot to show for it. Today, he got some dividends."

Jeter, a proud and stubborn sort, would not admit to feeling any doubts or pressures, just some fatigue with answering the same questions day in and day out.

But the truth is, it has been a long and arduous process to get from where Jeter was last season to the point he reached on Sunday afternoon.

Long and Jeter began working last September on altering his stride to the baseball, an adjustment that continued through the offseason, into spring training and, for a time, into the regular season. The idea was to cut down on his number of ground balls and increase the amount of line drives he hit, two numbers that had been moving in inverse proportions.

And truthfully, for the first month of the season, not only did it appear not to be working, but the numbers said Jeter was in fact regressing. His percentage of ground balls was even higher than it had been in 2010, and his percentage of line drives was lower. Jeter at times looked lost at the plate, off-balance and uncomfortable. The ball was dribbling off his bat, not jumping off it. He wasn't using his legs very much because, many suspected, he no longer had legs to use.

But behind the scenes, other changes were being made, changes Jeter and Long were less quick to publicize than they had been with the original changes.

"I tried the no-stride thing and it didn't work out," Jeter said. "It's pretty difficult to hit when you're sitting around trying to think about too many things. I found myself thinking of things early on, so now it's gotten to the point where I'm just trying to hit. Sometimes the results can be frustrating but you have to have confidence that you're going to produce. It doesn't always work out, but now, it's starting to."

Jeter now has six hits in his past 11 at-bats, 11 in his past 28 (.392) and has raised his average 34 points in May alone. More importantly, all six of his hits the past two games have been lasers; none of those infield dribblers Jeter had been specializing in and that Joe Girardi had been trying to convince everyone, himself included, were just as valid as any other kind.

"It was good to see him hit those home runs, to drive the ball," Girardi said. "I know he's been frustrated but we all have a lot of belief in Derek and in what he's capable of doing, and in what he's done and how he's persevered his whole career. That's who he is. He's a tough-minded kid that comes to play to win every day."

And finally, is starting to play like the Derek Jeter we all remember, but were in danger of forgetting about.

NOTES: Jeter's two homers and Cervelli's slam combined with home runs by Mark Teixeira (No. 9) and Curtis Granderson (a league-leading 11) for the Yankees' second five home run day of the season. … The offensive fireworks show overshadowed a sloppy game in which the Yankees were charged with four errors, two by Sabathia, and easily could have been charged with two more. The Yankees made nine errors on this seven-game road trip, all in the last four games. … The only Yankee without a hit was Robinson Cano, whose average has fallen to .290. … Alex Rodriguez had an infield hit but continues to struggle, although he said after a cage session with Long before the game, he feels as if he is ready to break out. "There's going to be a lot of damage to be done," he predicted. … Sabathia got the win despite walking four batters in the first two innings. His ERA remained low (2.89), however, since the errors -- throwing errors by A-Rod and Brett Gardner in addition to his own two -- kept his earned run total to just three in six innings. … The Yankees have Monday off, and return home to open a three-game series with the Kansas City Royals on Tuesday night.

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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