Drama builds as Jeter chases Gehrig
Once an innocent drought, hitless streak turning into a slump
NEW YORK -- At 84 years old, Yogi Berra does not venture out to Yankee Stadium as much as he'd like. It's a hassle. But on nights when Derek Jeter has a chance to make history, Berra finds it tough to stay away.
"I hope he breaks it tonight," the Hall of Fame catcher, speaking before Tuesday's 3-2 Yankees win, said of Lou Gehrig's all-time franchise hits record. "He's a good player."
But after finishing 0-for-4 with three strikeouts on Tuesday, Jeter is officially a good player in a funk. Still three shy of Gehrig's record of 2,721 hits with New York, Jeter is now hitless in his past 13 plate appearances dating back to a 3-for-3 effort on Sunday, with four strikeouts and a walk.
"I've never seen him press before, so I don't know what it looks like if he is," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He's getting some ribbing from his teammates, but that's going to happen."
Jeter did not make himself available for comment after the game.
After Sunday's game in Toronto, Jeter seemed primed to pass Gehrig on Monday, when the Yankees had a day-night doubleheader scheduled against the Rays. But he finished the day 0-for-8, then struck out in each of his first three at-bats on Tuesday to extend his longest hitless streak of the season.
It marked the first time Jeter had struck out three times in a game since July 30, 2008.
"I'm sure it's on his mind," Girardi said of the record. "As I said all along, I think he'll handle it extremely gracefully, and he's a very humble man. But I think he wants to get it behind him so he can just move on and play, and not answer questions about it."
Regardless of the history involved, Jeter was none too pleased with two of the strikeout calls. In the first inning, Rays starter David Price froze him on a 94-mph fastball at the knees. Then, after Jeter struck out swinging in the third, Price again caught him looking in the sixth -- this time on a 94-mph heater on the inside corner.
In the eighth, Jeter finally squared up a ball, drilling Randy Choate's full-count fastball into shallow right field. But the liner hung in the air and right fielder Willy Aybar caught it, extending Jeter's woes to a 12th straight at-bat.
If nothing else, the miniature slump has disappointed those who expected Jeter to shoulder past Gehrig by this point. Flashbulbs popped during every pitch of Jeter's four at-bats on Tuesday, much as they had throughout the doubleheader Monday. And they will continue to pop until Jeter finally becomes the team's all-time hits leader.
For longer than he'd like, Jeter has been forced into the spotlight as he pursues a Yankees legend. And his overall statistics, often overlooked, have become the centerpieces of conversation.
"He's so steady, you have an expectation what you're going to get every year," Girardi said. "And I think sometimes people take that for granted what he does -- that he hits over .300 and scores 100 runs and plays 155 games and drives in 75 runs. I think sometimes people take that as, 'That's just a normal year.' Well, that's not a normal year for most people."
In his prime, though, that was roughly a normal year for Berra, who never hit for such high averages but did boast better power numbers than Jeter. Though Berra never played with Gehrig, he did play alongside Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, two of the Yankees' top six hits leaders.
Berra, in 19 seasons as a catcher, notched 2,150 hits to rank eighth all-time on the Yankees' list. But he also won three Most Valuable Player Awards -- Jeter has none -- and 10 World Series titles, an all-time record.
"I'll take the rings more than the hits," Berra said. "That's what counts."
Asked if Jeter, a four-time World Series champion, would have been a good fit on the Yankees teams of the 1950s and '60s, Berra laughed.
"He would have fit in all right," Berra said. "He could have taken Phil [Rizzuto's] place."
Berra, too, slumped at times in his career. It is inevitable. And if Jeter was not currently on the cusp of history, this current funk would not be nearly as much of an issue.
"It's going to happen," said Nick Swisher, who won Tuesday's game on a walk-off home run, his second of the game. "We look to him for leadership. The great thing about him is even when he doesn't get hits, he's still our team captain -- he's still there rooting guys on, this and that. So he's a tremendous teammate, a tremendous person and I'm proud to be his teammate."
Someday soon, Jeter will also be a record-setting teammate. At this point, the Yankees are simply wondering when.
"Maybe tomorrow's the night," Girardi said. "Who knows? He'll be back in there."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.