I spent a lot of words in today’s paper talking about the weather at Yankee Stadium on Friday night and the adjusted pitching matchups for the rest of the ALDS and all the baseball that wasn’t played, and almost no words on what happened in the 1 ½ innings that actually were played. I’m okay with that, because there was a lot to sort through with the weather and the pitching, and the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers were tied at 1 when the game was halted, which means nothing had been decided.
The Tigers scored their run on a Delmon Young opposite-field homer off CC Sabathia, while the Yankees scored theirs on Alex Rodriguez’s RBI groundout against Justin Verlander.
So there it is.
But I want take a moment to acknowledge one play that jumped out at me Friday night. I want to acknowledge it for posterity, because while it was an insignificant moment in the big picture, it was quite revealing in other ways. I want to acknowledge it as an example to any kids who might be reading this, about what it means when baseball people mysteriously speak of “the right way to play the game.” And I want to acknowledge it because it involved Derek Jeter.
Leading off the bottom of the first, Jeter was fooled badly on a 1-2 slider from Verlander, whiffing awkwardly as the pitch bounced in the dirt.
What was interesting was that, already, just one batter into the bottom of the first, this was the third strikeout of the game in which the batter swung at a pitch in the dirt. This speaks, of course, to the mastery of Sabathia and Verlander, and perhaps the overanxiousness of hitters in the opening inning of the postseason.
In the top of the first, Sabathia had struck out Detroit’s leadoff hitter, Austin Jackson, on a change-up in the dirt. Amazingly, though, Jackson didn’t even make a move towards first base, which means he was either too oblivious or too lazy to do the right thing – which would have been to hustle down the line, force a throw from the catcher and, in a best-case scenario, wind up safe at first base, or even second, if the throw was off-line. It was an unpardonable sin in any situation, let alone leading off the first inning of the first game of the postseason, when even one run could be huge.
The next Detroit hitter, Magglio Ordonez, also struck out on a slider in the dirt. Unlike Jackson, he ran to first base, but he did so at a modest jog, giving Yankees catcher Russell Martin plenty of time to gather the ball in, step inside the baseline to have a better angle for the throw, and toss the ball to first base for the out.
But now, here was Jeter, 37 years old and his 16th full season in baseball and his 147th postseason game, missing badly at the slider in the dirt. Jeter, though, immediately dropped his bat and took off for first base as if his life depended on it. Tigers catcher Alex Avila played it the right way, grabbing the ball and firing to first. But Jeter, running in that familiar, breakneck, almost knock-kneed way that has been a staple of baseball’s postseason for 15 years now, beat the throw by less than a half-step, sticking his arms out to make the safe call before the umpire had a chance to, then clapped emphatically when the umpire agreed and called him safe.
Three batters later, Jeter scored on Rodriguez’s groundout. It was a run predicated upon Jeter’s pure hustle (and a couple of indifferent plays by Detroit infielders, who ignored chances to get the lead runner and took the safe outs at first instead). And who knows? That one run may wind up being the difference in this game, when they finally get around to finishing it.
The Jeter play wouldn’t have been nearly as noteworthy were it not for its juxtaposition with the way the two Tigers handled the exact same situations in the top half of the inning. I hope someone in the Tigers’ dugout took the youngster Jackson aside (we’ll let Ordonez slide, because he’s 37 years old and at least he ran, albeit half-heartedly) after the Jeter play and said something along the lines of, “See that, kid? That’s what you do on a strike three in the dirt. That’s called playing the game the right way.”
I doubt this play will make it onto any list of Jeter’s great postseason moments. It wasn’t as compelling as The Flip, or the Mr. November homer, or the Jeffrey Maier homer, or any of the others. But in its own way, it says as much about Jeter as any of them. (And remember, I’m no Jeter worshipper.) He ran hard because a baserunner against Verlander in the first inning mattered deeply, and because it was the only way Jeter knows how to play, and because it’s the right way.
I didn’t get a chance to ask him about it after the game was suspended, but if I did he would probably be puzzled as to why anyone would make a big deal about it.