Commentary

Derek Jeter blazing new ground

With four more hits Monday, Jeter is batting .411, the hottest start of his career

Updated: April 24, 2012, 12:18 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Derek Jeter has never been as hot as he is right now.

He wasn't this hot when he was an 18-year-old first-round draft pick. He wasn't this hot when he was dating Miss Universe, or when People magazine named him one of its "50 Most Beautiful People." He wasn't this hot in 1999, when he batted a career-high .349, nor in 2006, when he probably should have won the AL MVP award.

He wasn't even this hot when he read his buddy Alex Rodriguez's quotes about him in Esquire back in 2001, or when George Steinbrenner accused him of staying too long at Jorge Posada's birthday party.

Derek Jeter
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireDerek Jeter can't look more comfortable at the plate than he does right now.

Heck, the wax figure of Jeter in Madame Tussauds wasn't this hot when it came out of the oven.

This is how hot Derek Jeter is right now: He went 4-for-4 on Monday night against Derek Holland in the New York Yankees' 7-4 win over the Texas Rangers, who even at 13-4 are nowhere near as hot as Jeter is.

His batting average stands at .411 -- he struck out in his last at-bat of the night, against reliever Koji Uehara -- and against left-handed pitching, the numbers are stupid good: 17-for-27 (.630).

The month still has six games to go, but, two months shy of his 38th birthday, Jeter has never had an April like this one. And generally speaking, when Jeter has a good April, he sustains it for the rest of the season.

In 1999, he hit .378 in April and finished at .349, second in the AL to Nomar Garciaparra's .357. In 2006, he hit .398, and finished at .343, second to Joe Mauer's .346. The one notable exception, of course, is 2010, when he started out well, batting .330 in April only to stagger home at a career-low .270, the season that convinced many he was on the way down, if not finished, and a mark that haunts him to this day.

Because nothing makes Derek Jeter hotter than having to answer questions about that season, or about the improvement that came seemingly overnight in the second half of 2011 and continues, in even more intense fashion, into 2012 and the game he had Monday night.

Ask his hitting coach Kevin Long what Jeter is doing differently this season and he will tell you "Nothing. It's just that everybody doubted him. That's all he needed."

Ask Rodriguez the same question and he says, "I have no theories on anything." Clearly, he is a man who has learned his lesson about saying anything that might cross Jeter.

And ask Jeter himself and he will speak to you as if you are a 2-year-old. "I've told you guys time and time again," he said. "It has nothing to do with age; it has nothing to do with anything. If the mechanics are good, the results will be there."

Clearly, right now, the mechanics are there.

So too is the motivation. Derek Jeter is hot in part because he is a naturally great player, in part because he is an equally hard worker and in part because of his incredible self-belief.

And, in large part, because he is driven to prove people wrong.

We all take our motivation where we can find it, and Jeter seems to have found it in those who, after his troubling 2010 season, questioned whether he could ever again be the kind of player he had been in 2006.

Although Jeter and many Yankees fans try to revise history to make it appear those doubts were solely the creation of the media, it must be recalled that they first appeared in the minds of Jeter and Long. Jeter was the one who went to Long seeking help in the offseason, and Long was the one who decided an alteration needed to be made in Jeter's swing in order to compensate for an obvious loss of bat speed.

That experiment was the work of no one but the two men involved, and it was cooked up because both believed it was necessary.

That it failed, and was abandoned by Jeter -- who solved his problems at the plate in his own way and at his own pace -- is further evidence that this is an uncommonly focused and determined athlete who simply will not accept the standard excuses for failure.

Jeter still carries the scars from that season, and the fallout that followed it, including his contentious contract negotiations with the Yankees.

They were obvious even in the glow of an important victory, on a night when CC Sabathia returned to his previous form and the Yankees showed that the only real difference between themselves and the Rangers, the nominal Best Team in Baseball, was an early-season won-loss record.

They were obvious when Jeter was asked, by one of the few beat reporters he seems to genuinely like, whether it was fun to be hitting as well as he is hitting right now.

"You mean fun to talk about this as opposed to, 'Am I going to hit .250 for the rest of my life?' Yeah," he said without the trace of a smile. "Well, I guess you take the good and the bad, that's the way I look at it."

Right now, it's all good for Jeter, and if he needs to use what he perceives as negative coverage for his fuel, that can only be good for him and the Yankees.

His night began with an infield single to deep shortstop that he legged out, and he wound up scoring on Curtis Granderson's two-run single. An inning later, he lined a solid single to center, and in the fifth lined another to left. But it was in the sixth that the difference in Jeter's approach at the plate from last April to this one became evident. Turning his unique inside-out swing on Holland's two-seam fastball, Jeter kept the head of his bat inside the ball and drove it, with authority, into the right-center gap.

It was the kind of shot he has hit repeatedly in this young season -- he sent a similar pitch into the Yankees' bullpen at home last week against the Twins -- and the kind of shot he no longer seemed capable of hitting for most of 2010, or the first half of 2011, when his signature seemed to be the rollover to shortstop.

"You even see him in batting practice, the ball's just jumping off his bat to all fields," said Rodriguez, who had a game-breaking three-run homer off Holland in the fifth. "When you go 10, 15 rows up in batting practice to all fields, that's pretty impressive. I think whatever he was doing in the second half, he's just building on it this year. It's awesome."

Manager Joe Girardi, who has said he will try to keep Jeter fresh this year with frequent DH days, admitted that it is difficult right now to take a hitter as locked in as Jeter out of his lineup.

"Have I given him [a day off] yet?" Girardi asked, knowing full well he hasn't. "I don't think I will. I've given him some DH days and that's about it. As long as I keep seeing the explosiveness in him, I'm going to keep playing him."

Girardi said that because of the relatively cool weather and the soft natural grass here, Jeter would probably play all three games in Arlington this week. And he said that after so many great seasons, Jeter had lost the ability to surprise him -- except, of course, when he has a year like 2010.

"We've gotten so used to seeing it over the years," Girardi said. "When he went through his struggles last year, there's one thing I wasn't going to do, and that's doubt him. I wasn't going to doubt him. I know his heart, I know his character and I know how hard he works at what he does."

No doubt, he also knows that the only thing Jeter hates more than being written out of the lineup is being written off.

"He looks like he's just dying to get up to the plate," A-Rod said. "He's amazing. I keep kidding him that it's like 1999 all over again."

Derek Jeter was hot back then.

But not nearly as hot as he is right now, in a lot of different ways.

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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