Yankees captain personifies greatness

NEW YORK -- Derek Jeter made an important defensive contribution in the third inning Tuesday night, ranging into the hole, spinning and starting a slick double play on Placido Polanco to help Yankees starter Chien-Ming Wang out of an early jam.

Jeter celebrated the play with a fist pump, but the slow-motion replay captured him knocking his cap sideways in a quasi-C.C. Sabathia moment. For a guy with the captain's designation, four World Series rings and his own personal fragrance, Jeter looked perilously close to goofy in the freeze frame.

You could file the sequence under "nobody's perfect" -- except that there's so much evidence to the contrary.

Let's face it: Lots of people who aren't Yankees fans get nauseous hearing about Jeter's October brilliance, his flair for the dramatic and his inherent ability to rise to the occasion in the postseason and take his teammates along for the ride.

The guy is a .317 career hitter in the regular season and a .315 hitter in the postseason. Maybe he's just consistent.

But here we are, one night, nine innings and an 8-4 Yankees victory into the American League Division Series, and Jeter worship is very much in vogue. Like Berkshire Mountains vacation traffic and Bill Belichick-as-genius stories, this particular autumn ritual just keeps going and going.

Fresh off what's likely to be a Most Valuable Player regular season, Jeter provided the exclamation point at the very start of the division series against Detroit. He banged out two singles, two doubles and a home run in five at-bats, tying the postseason record of five hits in a game held by five other players.

Jeter's performance was enough to overshadow a four-RBI night by Yankees right fielder Bobby Abreu, who was perfectly content with a dugout-view seat after watching so many of these Jeter specials on television.

"He's a gamer, he's a leader, and you can learn a lot of things from him," said Abreu, who referred to Jeter as "amazing" three times in a span of 38 words.

The managers in both dugouts were similarly impressed, but in subtler ways. The Tigers' Jim Leyland pointed out that Jeter typically uses the entire field, but must have noticed something in Detroit starter Nate Robertson's delivery that convinced him he could turn on the ball. Jeter pulled three of his five hits to left field.

New York's Joe Torre, in summarizing Jeter's night, painted a picture of a player who is exceptional when it matters most because he doesn't fear the alternative.

"I guess the only way to characterize it is, he doesn't go up there thinking negatively,'' Torre said. "He just doesn't. Failing doesn't scare him, and I think that's a big part of what his makeup is all about.''

For all the Yankees' pitching questions -- both starting and bullpen -- they enter the postseason with an air of invulnerability because of a lineup that scored a major league-high 930 runs, even while missing Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui for the bulk of the season.

Abreu and Jason Giambi, New York's Nos. 3 and 5 hitters, drove in a combined 220 runs and ranked first and third in the majors, respectively, in pitches per plate appearance this year. Meanwhile, Jeter and second baseman Robinson Cano became the first double-play partners in history to each bat .340 or better in the same season.

Third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who leads the majors with 423 home runs over the past 10 seasons, is batting sixth against the Tigers. If A-Rod doesn't get on track, the Yankees might actually have trouble getting out of single digits on some nights.

When asked to assess the New York lineup before Game 1, Leyland replied, "They have Murderers' Row and then Cano. That's not a good feeling.''

"I guess the only way to characterize it is, [Derek Jeter] doesn't go up there thinking negatively. He just doesn't. Failing doesn't scare him, and I think that's a big part of what his makeup is all about."
-- Yankees manager Joe Torre

Robertson, Detroit's starter, skated through the first two innings unharmed. But like beach erosion, termites or kudzu, the Yankees have a way of wearing you down eventually. They batted around against Robertson in the third, with Abreu contributing a two-run double and Giambi adding a two-run homer. That was something of a surprise, given that lefties hit a mere .181 against Robertson during the regular season.

Abreu added a suspense-killing, two-run single in the seventh, and it was more than enough for a shaky New York bullpen.

Robertson's final line -- 5 2/3 innings, 12 hits and seven earned runs -- was borderline scary. But at least he didn't walk any batters. And for anyone who watched him compete against skilled hitter after skilled hitter, it really wasn't as bad as it appeared.

"My line doesn't look good at all,'' Robertson said. "But those guys can pile the hits up on you really, really quick. The thing is, you have to stay aggressive. You can't start nibbling around the corners and putting guys on base. Then they can really hurt you.''

It falls to rookie Justin Verlander, who is 4-5 with a 5.82 ERA in August and September, to pitch the Tigers back into the series Wednesday night against Mike Mussina. If Verlander isn't up to it, the Yankees will head to Detroit needing just one victory to advance to the American League Championship Series.

Here's another scary thing to ponder: Jeter was born in New Jersey, but raised in Kalamazoo, Mich., so maybe he'll have a little extra motivation playing so close to home.

"I don't think they like me too much in Detroit to begin with,'' Jeter said. "Every time I'm there, they say I'm a sellout for playing in New York. My dad was a huge Tigers fan growing up, so I watched all the games. I unfortunately wasn't.''

Chances are, the Tigers aren't real fond of Jeter right now, either. But they certainly respect him. Come October, it's impossible not to.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.