Captain can still be monumental in 2010

NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees unveiled a monument -- or more accurately, a monolith -- in honor of George Steinbrenner before Monday night's crucial game against the Tampa Bay Rays, and even though there isn't much real estate or wall space left, someday in the future the Yankees will find room to add at least one more.

Derek Jeter will have a monument out there, never you doubt that. Not just a plaque, but one of those heavy granite monoliths that distinguish the really, really great Yankees from the merely great.

On that day, not too many people are going to recall Jeter's 2010 season, the year in which he hit some 50 points below his career batting average, routinely went weeks between home runs and grounded out so often he could have collected a second paycheck as a landscaper.

In fact, that day may come sooner than anyone of us could have expected. In fact, that day could be just a matter of weeks away.

With only 11 games left in the regular season, you don't hear too much anymore about how Jeter still has time to turn it all around, to somehow go on a hot streak and climb back up from the purgatory of the .264 hitter he is now to within shouting distance of the .300-plus hitter he had been for the first 15 seasons of his major league life.

That ship has undoubtedly sailed. Jeter has been hitting better lately, and had two more hits Monday night, but still raised his batting average just one measly point. Only those in the deepest of denials can still disbelieve that 2010 is going to turn out to be the worst season, statistically, of his career.

And yet, by the standards George Steinbrenner set for this club and the yardstick by which Jeter measures himself, 2010 can still turn out to be a success.

Historically, this has been Jeter's time of the year, and if there is anything left of the player who was dubbed Mr. November for a dramatic home run in the first World Series game ever played in the month of Thanksgiving, it can be again.

Monday night, in as crucial a regular-season game as the Yankees have played all season, Jeter's RBI single in the bottom of the sixth helped his team reclaim a lead a trio of pitchers had given away in the top of the inning.

It turned out not to be the game-winning hit -- that honor went to the second of Curtis Granderson's two home runs, a three-run bomb off the top of the foul pole in right, immediately after Jeter's single -- but it certainly stuck a giant pin in the burgeoning balloon the Rays had inflated by overcoming a four-run deficit just moments before.

"When you have the lead and a team comes back, it's important that you score again right away," said Jeter, who also had a double in the fifth and scored two runs in the 8-6 victory that allowed the Yankees to open a 1 ½-game lead over the Rays in the relentless AL East race, their biggest lead in 10 days.

"We knew they were not gonna give up," he said. "That's a great team over there. It's big win but we have to come right back tomorrow. We have to take the approach that every game's important at this point in the season."

It is the same approach Jeter is taking with his own season within the season.

Although he is at the point in his career that cumulative goals seem to arrive like bills in the mail -- the two runs he scored Monday night gave him 1,677 for his career, a total that tied him with Mickey Mantle for third on the Yankees' all-time list, behind only Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, all of whom have monuments, too -- just about every decent seasonal goal is all but out of his reach.

A .334 batting average like the one he achieved in 2009 is out of the question. So is 200 hits, a benchmark he has reached seven times in his career, including last year, when he had 212. His on-base percentage is down more than 70 points from last year, his double plays and strikeouts are up. The last home run he hit was on Aug. 24, which snapped a 131 AB drought, and 91 more homerless at-bats have passed since.

By no measurable statistic can this ever be considered a good season for him.

Except for one. If Jeter can continue to improve over these final two weeks -- he hit an improving .286 on the just-concluded road trip and began this vital seven-game homestand 2-for-5 -- and make the kind of contributions he has always made at this point in the season, the struggles of the first six months of 2010 will be easily forgotten.

Especially if it all ends with another trip to the World Series, or better yet, with a parade down Broadway.

"Let me tell you something," he said. "We've played what, 150 games? So after 149 we were tied [actually, ½-game ahead, proving he's really not a numbers guy]. So they didn't mean nothing. Now the only thing that matters is from this point on. That's the approach you have to take."

It's really the only approach left for him. It's no longer productive to fret over the numbers, or project what it will all mean when it comes time to sit down with Brian Cashman and hash out the endgame of his Yankees career, his final free-agent contract.

The only thing left for Jeter to concentrate on is finishing up strong, because historically, as he goes in October, so go the Yankees.

"We set goals at the beginning of the season," he said. "Those goals are always the same. To win our division, to get to the World Series, to win a world championship. Nothing that's happened so far has changed those goals."

Monday night, the Yankees got another good five innings out of rookie starter Ivan Nova, who is showing a disturbing propensity for faltering the second and third time through a lineup.

Then, they got some shaky relief work from Boone Logan, Chad Gaudin and David Robertson before Kerry Wood, the anchor of the bullpen, came in and stabilized things.

With three more games left against the Rays this week and arguably their weakest starter against the Yankees, Matt Garza, out of the way, this week still has the potential to be damaging and even disastrous.

The good news is the quick fix hitting coach Kevin Long put on Granderson seems to have taken. Better still, slowly but surely, Jeter seems to be coming around.

"Well, you just want to have good at-bats and I was happy with my at-bats tonight," Jeter said. "I'm swinging at strikes, and when I'm hitting the ball the other way that's when I feel the best."

Jeter felt pretty good Monday night, and the Yankees felt pretty good about him.

If there's one lesson to be learned by a stroll through Monument Park, it is that they don't give monuments for single seasons. They are career achievement awards and tributes to the only thing that mattered to the man with the newest monument out there -- winning championships.

Jeter has already had the career, and he still can make an important contribution to yet another memorable Yankee October. That can make a subpar April through August seem like a distant and trivial memory, indeed.

GAME NOTES: Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he still considers Nova a starter, but did not rule out the possibility of moving him to the bullpen, where his habit of short, effective stints could be very useful. "Is it something we might possibly look at? Yes." ... Granderson's two homers gave him 21 for the season. As he observed, "I just looked up and all of a sudden I'm fifth on the team. It kinda snuck up on me." ... A published report said the Yankees had added 6-foot-10 righty Andrew Brackman to the roster for the remainder of the season, but Girardi professed to know nothing about it. "If it happens, they'll tell me tomorrow, I guess," he said. ... Tuesday's pitching matchup: Phil Hughes (16-8, 4.31) vs. RHP James Shields (13-12, 4.86). First pitch 7:05 p.m. ET.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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