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The return of Captain Clutch

8/16/2014

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- To Martin Prado, watching Derek Jeter bat in the ninth inning of Saturday's Yankees-Rays game must have seemed like watching one of those grainy old newsreeels of Babe Ruth, the movements herky-jerky and the entire scene bathed in a sepia glow.

After all, Jeter's best days were behind him -- weren't they? -- and all that really seemed left for him this season was a series of pregame ceremonies, a few more useless gifts and a check or two for his charitable foundation.

In fact, all game had seemed like something of a farewell party, with the Yankee-fan-heavy crowd at Tropicana Field screaming for him from his first appearance at batting practice and standing for all three of his previous at-bats, each of which had ended ineffectually in a pop out, strikeout and groundout.

And when he stepped to the plate in that ninth inning, with the game tied at 2 and Brett Gardner at second base, it seemed as if the entire place -- a rare Trop sellout of 31,042 -- was saying goodbye, as they turned the ballpark into St. Jetersburg with thunderous chants of "Der-ek Jeter!"

“I’m not so sure I’ve heard his name chanted that loud at an opposing stadium this year," Joe Girardi said later. "You’ve heard some, and you’ve seen standing ovations, but this was probably the loudest.”

The cheers would get even louder, of course, but at the time it seemed like this at-bat would end uneventfully, as well, since Jeter had already tried, unsuccessfully, to bunt twice off the Rays flame-throwing left-hander, Jake McGee, and had now left himself one swing against a guy flirting with triple digits on the radar gun. In fact, just two pitches earlier, McGee had come up and in with one clocked at 95 that had Jeter jumping out of the way and the ostensibly home crowd booing its own pitcher.

"It was close, but I don't know how close it was -- I closed my eyes," Jeter said. "Yeah, he throws extremely hard."

So now here was Jeter, with a 2-2 count and out of chances to bunt, and there was McGee, firing gas, with the game hanging in the balance. One pitch and one classic Jeter inside-out swing later, and the crowd erupted once again as the ball flew on a line past a diving Ben Zobrist, the Rays second baseman, and easily scored Gardner.

And then the crowd erupted again, even louder, when it saw the reading on the scoreboard: 100 mph.

The guy who was too old to play shortstop everyday, whose bat was too slow to get around on even an average big-league fastball, the player whose vaunted nickname, Captain Clutch, was becoming more of a punchline, had turned back the clock, and in the Yankees dugout, Martin Prado -- who had put the Yankees ahead 2-0 with a second-inning home run -- was thinking: Derek Jeter. Just like I pictured him.

"This is the kind of win I imagined, the kind of Derek Jeter performance I saw on videos, and why he’s an example for all of us," Prado said after David Robertson had come on to nail down the 3-2 win that snapped the Yankees five-game losing streak. "Today was an emotional win. I got to see him do what he has done throughout the years -- the Captain rising to the occasion for the team when they need him the most."

Also, necessary.

Going by the numbers, the odds were this would not end up being a memorable Jeter moment; his first thought was he had to move Gardner to third and hope Jacoby Ellsbury or Mark Teixeira, who get paid to drive in runs, could get him home.

But that was before he fell into a two-strike hole to McGee, and frankly, his numbers this year told you it was not only possible but highly likely Jeter would fail.

This season, his batting average is about where it was in 2010, when everyone was sure he was washed up -- .273 coming into the game, or 38 points below his career average. And by any measure, a soft .273, with just 17 extra-base hits, a slugging percentage of .328 and an OPS of .651.

Even worse, for a player renowned for his performance in key situations, his clutch stats were pretty horrible: a decent .276 with runners in scoring position but just .255 in tie games and, most damning of all, a mere .169 in situations classified as late-and-close -- 7th inning or later -- and his team either tied or within one run. This at-bat fit all the criteria for failure.

But despite having more hits than all but five players in the history of the game, the story of Jeter has never been told by the numbers, but rather, in the moments.

“He's been doing this for a long, long time," Girardi said. "He’s been a guy that’s always been able to relax in the big moment.”

The big moments have been few and far between this year, and truthfully, Saturday's win could be an isolated moment in a season destined to end in disappointment. But if this turns out to be a rallying point, and the Yankees wind up making something out of this season after all, this is a game people will point to as pivotal in that turnaround.

And Derek Jeter will have been at the center of it.

Oh, he certainly didn't do it alone. There was Prado's home run and Shane Greene working six strong shutout innings with 10 Ks before he faltered in the seventh, when the Rays tied the game on an infield miscue -- Jeter was the DH today, and somehow neither Prado, the second baseman, nor Brendan Ryan, the shortstop, managed to cover second base on what should have been a forceout grounder, a faux pas that came back to bite the Yankees when Zobrist's grounder plated the tying run.

But when the game was on the line, Jeter was at the plate, a place you would have wanted him most of his career, though probably not this year.

"I always like to be in those situations," Jeter said. "It doesn't mean I'm going to succeed; I've failed quite a bit as well, but I like those situations. I'm lucky it found a hole there."

In truth, there was nothing lucky about it; it was simply a case of a Hall of Fame-bound player putting on a memorable at-bat against an extremely tough pitcher. This was no bloop that fell in front of an outfielder, 16-hopper through the hole and no infield hit. It was a sound swing on a tough pitch that resulted in a clean and, ultimately, game-winning single.

It would have been easy for Jeter to give up on that at-bat, this game or this season. Six weeks from now, the odds are he will be living in lavish retirement.

But Jeter isn't quite ready to walk away, not when there are still 40 games to be played and not when there's still a spark of hope left in him and his team for one more October.

"You can't come into a game thinking you've lost a few games in a row," he said. "I know you guys have to write that story, but for us, every day we come here you've got to be optimistic, and you've got to take each game as it comes. Every at-bat, every pitch. You have to try to find a way to do your job. No one is thinking about how many games we've lost. It's just basically 'let's try to win this game.' That's the approach you have to have. This is a game of failure, and it's not easy. When you're scuffling a little bit, that's when you find out a lot about teams. And you find out a lot about players."

We learned about Derek Jeter a long time ago, and for those who had forgotten, Saturday was a chance for him to remind you of what he was -- and is.

And for new teammates such as Martin Prado, who might have heard about him and seen him on highlight reels, it was a chance to experience in person just exactly what all the fuss was about.

"I’m so excited just to see Jeter came through like he always does," Prado said. "That was exciting."

And maybe even revitalizing.