When playoffs come, Jeter flips the switch
Seeking sixth ring, captain makes postseason his time to shine
MINNEAPOLIS -- The playful banter between Derek Jeter and Yogi Berra always goes something like this: the Hall of Fame catcher teases the current captain, reminding him that he's only made it halfway to the 10 World Series rings accumulated during his historic career.
And then Jeter, who last November finally acquired the championship ring for the thumb he'd sought for nearly a decade, will tell Berra that his teams had it easier -- for example, there was never an American League Division Series to get through like the one the Yankees will begin vs. the Twins on Wednesday. That only serves to make the chase more rewarding.
"Once you get a taste of winning, you want to do it again," Jeter said. "You always hear people say, 'Oh, if I could win, just one time.' But then after you win one time, you want to continue to experience it. I think people appreciate how difficult it is to do, and what it feels like after you've done it."
It could be a pivotal postseason for Jeter, who is playing out the final year of a 10-year, $189 million contract with the Yankees. No one -- players, executives or analysts -- seriously expects that Jeter will play in another uniform after this year, but the 36-year-old shortstop may have something to prove after scuffling through a down campaign.
Jeter's .270 batting average this year was his lowest since becoming a starter in 1996, and after silencing critics with a career year in 2009 -- one that was credited in large part to an intense offseason workout routine that included agility training -- Jeter's bat speed seemed to dip this year, something that may have been attributable in part to hidden injuries.
With the lineup card hours away from being brought to home plate, the Yankees don't seem to have any concerns, despite his career-low .710 OPS and defensive range that has returned closer to where it was in 2008, after general manager Brian Cashman had alerted his shortstop that it had become an issue.
"All you need to do is read the back of his baseball card," Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher said. "I think he's going to be right there. He's the major leader on this team, he's the captain and I think he's going to be right there when it all settles."
The theory of hidden, healing injuries gained traction in September, when Jeter assembled a season-high 14 game hitting streak and appeared to be driving the ball in rejuvenated form -- especially after he was given an off-day on Sept. 11 in Texas, when Jeter raced to the finish line by hitting .342 (27-for-79) in his last 19 games.
"He's just being Derek Jeter. I've said all along, I wouldn't bet against him," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said in late September. "I know his determination, I know his work ethic. He'll find ways to correct things. He's a smart player. ... He's hitting the ball harder, getting the ball in the air sometimes and he's not getting jammed."
The postseason, of course, has historically been Jeter's time to shine -- a charmed existence that traces all the way back to that home run that wasn't, plucked out of the sky in Game 1 of the 1996 AL Championship Series by a young fan and leaving the Orioles' Tony Tarasco barking at the right-field umpire, Rich Garcia, while the momentum of that series changed.
"Derek is incredible. I play right next to him and have the best seat in the house," Alex Rodriguez said. "He is the ultimate professional, and he keeps things very, very simple. He always has a great time, always enjoys it."
Rodriguez relates a story from last year's World Series push, when the Yankees were waiting out a delay. A player stirred in the clubhouse, beginning to talk about hitting the batting cages again to get in extra work while the rain fell.
"And the captain says, 'If you haven't figured it out by now, you probably aren't going to. Go out and have fun and enjoy the game,'" Rodriguez said. "So that's his mentality. He's just great."
Jeter enters play Wednesday ranking first on baseball's postseason lists with 175 career hits, 99 runs and 138 games played, and also ranks second with 50 extra-base hits and third in home runs (20), with 12 of those home runs tying the game or giving the Yankees a lead.
In 2009, Jeter was again at the top of his game, leading the World Series champs in postseason hits (22) -- no surprise, since Jeter now leads all active Major Leaguers with 2,926 hits, with the chase to become the first Yankees player to reach the 3,000-hit mark virtually assured for '11.
That pursuit will fill seats in the Bronx next season, but it is too far off for the Yankees to worry about now. Needing 11 more victories so Jeter can close the gap on Berra's two hands of rings, this is Jeter's time to revive the glories of years past, flipping the switch into his own postseason mode.
"I think you just try to treat it like it's any other game," Jeter said. "Whether you're playing in Spring Training or October, it's still baseball. Sometimes people try to do some things differently and they think all of a sudden they've got to turn into a different type of player. I just try to stay the same."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.