Jeter always in right place at right time
NEW YORK -- Jhonny Peralta's bat had directed a well-struck base hit to center field and, for those with a sense of the not-too-distant past, toward the 2000 World Series as well. As the ball bounced toward Curtis Granderson in the Yankee Stadium lawn Saturday night, it also took us back to another Saturday night 11 years ago, to a different Game 1 at a different Yankee Stadium and a different opponent. The Yankees shortstop was the same.
It was the Mets' sixth then, it was the Tigers' fifth this time. It was Timo Perez then. And where is he now? It was Alex Avila this time. And where will he be in 11 years? And each time, it was gallant Derek Jeter playing shortstop and looming large. In 11 years, he'll probably be throwing out the first ball at another Game 1 in the Bronx.
In 2000, after Perez foolishly downshifted between second base and third, Jeter handled a relay from left fielder David Justice and made a precise throw to the plate. The Mets were denied a run in a scoreless game they lost, 4-3, in 12 innings. And the postgame spotlights focused on Perez for his faux pas and on those who contributed to the Yankees' fourth run.
But as Joe Torre pointed out in the early morning the following day, "Before you can win, you have to not lose." Jeter already was quite accomplished at not losing.
Peralta's base hit came an inning before the Yankees blew up the first game of the American League Division Series. The score, a residue of Friday night's 12-inning, get-your-feet-really-wet exercise, was 1-1. Avila was on second base, Ryan Raburn was on first. They were the first runners Ivan Nova had allowed in his appearance as CC Sabathia's understudy.
Before pitching coach Larry Rothschild could express concern above the effect working from the stretch had on Nova's pitches, Peralta struck, Granderson waited for the sinking line drive to reach him, and Jeter prepared himself to not lose. The primary cutoff man was to be Mark Teixeira at the mound. Infield coach Mick Kelleher said Jeter, the cutoff man on a throw to third, was out of position when he put himself in the outfield grass, to the third-base side of second. Whether he should have or not, Granderson hit Jeter, and Jeter let loose. Eleven years later, he still has an arm that allows him to make the plays shortstops must make.
Avila, not having learned from Jeremy Giambi's mistake of 10 years past, didn't slide; not really. Instead, he pulled his punch as so many -- far too many -- runners do these days. Instead of flattening Russell Martin or executing a genuine, horizontal slide, he provided an awkward, ill-conceived and quite unsuccessful half and half -- 50-percent slide, 50-percent standup. He was 100-percent out.
Jeter's throw was a tad higher than perfect and a bit more to the third-base side. After Russell had removed Peralta's bat, he was just where the relay would come. Funny how that works when Jeter is involved. He can do it right by making a mistake. This time, he made Russell's tag easier. A skilled and smart play-making guard routinely delivers his passes to his teammate's free hand. Successful quarterbacks throw to the undefended side. But Jeter is just a shortstop. Just the way Sinatra was just a saloon singer.
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Teams don't regularly appear in postseason series if their middle infield is suspect; the Dodgers of 1974, '77, '78 and '81, notwithstanding. Those who question the Hall of Fame credentials of Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto ought to note which teams played into October year after year in the late '40s into the mid '50s and identify the shortstops. Ted Williams identified Rizzuto as the difference between the first-place Yankees and the runner-up Red Sox.
Perhaps, the Yankees could have made October theirs all these years with a lesser shortstop, a lesser hitter. And perhaps not. Jeter helps them not lose and helps them win. And if a loss happens, he helps them recover. Whatever thoughts the Mets had of staging an insurrection in Game 4 in 2000 were immediately crushed by his leadoff home run.
In a less dramatic manner, Jeter provided the same net offense in this Game 1. Before the rain Friday night, he turned his leadoff strikeout into a run. And his single through the vacated right side with Brett Gardner running in the sixth inning was textbook.
The spotlighted stage is his playground, has been since '96. To speak of Jeter in superlatives now, 15 years after the first season in his distinguished career, is a mostly redundant exercise. The adjectives with the est suffix have been used, repeated and nearly worn out.
Other Yankees have skills that exceed Jeter's. Granderson and Robinson Cano do things well and produce more runs. Votes -- already cast -- for the American League MVP Award will go to them and to Teixeira. Even with his 3,000th hit, Jeter will be out of position in a different way next month when the votes are tallied.
The Yankees' Core Four already has lost one member. Andy Pettitte was at the park Saturday night -- his wife Laura is to sing the anthem, and he is to throw out the first ball Sunday. He always starts Game 2. Jorge Posada is a candidate for comeback player of the summer. And Mo is Mo even now. In some ways more remarkable than Jeter.
And the Captain is the Captain and the shortstop and the playmaker and the man who makes the subtle plays conspicuous because he is who he is. Even now, Jeter remains the primary guy. He makes the Yankees not lose and helps them win. The baton will passed soon -- Jeter to Cano, probably. That's 6-4 if you're scoring. But not yet. No. 2 still comes first.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.