- Andrew Marchand, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
NEW YORK -- With his Madison Avenue white teeth showing, Derek Jeter confidently walked to the plate with almost a smile on his face. The 46,122 previously dazed fans grew loud, nearly sounding like they once did across the street -- still not as intimidating, but at least animated for a few moments. Jeter's chosen walk-up music, Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize," played over the loudspeakers.
The Yankees were down by one in the bottom of the seventh. There were two outs, and the bases were loaded. They were seven outs away from panic city. It was pennant baseball on the warm and breezy first day of September.
Eduardo Nunez -- just called up -- already had a big RBI single and nearly cried at first over the excitement of it all after cutting the deficit to one. Now, Jeter stood at the plate for another "been there, done that" moment.
The surging Orioles had Pedro Strop, in his first full major league season, on the mound, throwing lasers -- 98 mph on the gun. Strop got up 0-2, and still, Jeter had him right where he wanted him. "The Captain," demonstrating his career trait of just doing what he needs to, eventually worked a walk to tie the game.
Next, Nick Swisher hit a hard, one-hop liner to J.J. Hardy at short. It should have stranded the bases loaded. Instead, Hardy -- "the best shortstop in the league," according to Orioles manager Buck Showalter -- couldn't catch it. Then Hardy couldn't pick it up. Swisher hustled. The error gave the Yankees the lead and eventually a 4-3 win.
It was bigger than just an average victory. It was probably the biggest win of the season. Instead of facing a Sunday showdown for first place in the American League East, the Yankees are three games up in the standings. Breathing room was restored. At least for a day.
"They are all big," Jeter said. "Every game we play at this point is big."
The Yankees were seven outs away from panic surrounding their universe, but there is no panic on this team. The Yankees are not out of any trouble, by any means. But if this Yankees team ends up blowing what was a 10-game lead, it won't be because they were overwhelmed by the moment. There is too much gray hair and history of success in that clubhouse.
Saturday's game was a huge swing -- a reminder that, at least for a day, the past is not necessarily a prologue, but it might be. With Jeter leading the way, the Yankees are going to transition into these big games as coolly as summer transitions into fall.
"You know Jete is not going to panic," manager Joe Girardi said.
That is the Yankees' biggest advantage in the AL East. The Orioles might be playing with house money and a substantial amount of luck on their side. The Rays have the best starting pitching. But the Yankees have longer résumés, which make them look old one day but experienced the next.
"If you win, they say experience helps," Jeter said. "If you lose, they say you don't have enough youth. You know what I mean? That seems to be the case all the time. It depends upon what angle you are writing."
The Yankees do need a little boost, and Nunez might be the guy to provide it. From the get-go, Nunez was supposed to be an important player for this club this year. His youth, speed and enthusiasm sprinkled around the field -- shortstop one day, third base the next, maybe a little outfield as well -- seemed to be a good fit to ease the workload of Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
But a funny thing happened -- actually, probably not so funny for everyone involved. Nunez couldn't field. Eventually he was sent down to the minor leages, after a two-hit day, because there were too many errors. The Yankees committed him to shortstop at Triple-A. He immediately made two more errors and then got hurt. Finally he returned to the big club with the rest of the Sept. 1 call-ups.
Originally Saturday, Girardi went all-in and had Nunez penciled in at shortstop. But Jeter showed up and said he preferred to be in the field instead of DH-ing. So Girardi put Nunez at DH instead.
In the seventh, Steve Pearce -- in the game only because of Curtis Granderson's sore hamstring -- knocked his first hit as a Yankee, a single. After a Jayson Nix walk, Nunez stepped to the plate with two outs and the Yankees trailing 3-1. Then Nunez hit his RBI single to left.
Nunez wears a perpetual smile and understands his low major league service time means he should stay quiet most of the time. It makes him quite popular with his teammates. Jeter especially seems to like him. Nunez cares about improving and succeeding.
"I almost cried," Nunez said of his RBI single. "I was so excited."
After the game, Jeter, a couple of lockers over, was just cool. He pointed out that he has failed many times in those big spots. He knows he has had many successes, too. He's been there, done that.
That experience could count for a lot this September. At least for a day, that was the angle, that was the story.