Underdog days of spring for Derek Jeter

NEW YORK -- Derek Jeter was warming up on the grass behind home plate, locked in the pregame ritual of long toss, when an inquiring mind threw him the defining question of the night.

"UConn or Butler?"

"Butler," Jeter immediately replied, shocking the reporter who asked. Derek Jeter wasn't only on schedule to become the first Yankee to collect 3,000 hits; he was on schedule to become the first Yankee to collect 3,000 hits without offering a single decisive opinion about anything along the way.

Jeter is a summa cum laude graduate of Michael Jordan's Republicans-buy-sneakers-too school of thought. He doesn't endorse political candidates, lead boycotts against socially negligent companies or pick winners of national championship basketball games.

But lo and behold, Jeter liked the little guy on Monday night. He was told that Butler might have a problem with Connecticut's willowy freshman, Jeremy Lamb.

"I don't know anything about it," responded Jeter, retreating a step or two from his position on muscle memory. "But I like [Butler's] coach. It's a good story."

Brad Stevens would end up on the losing side of the title game for a second straight year, but that wasn't the point. Five days after CC Sabathia described the Yankees as something of a Lake Placid longshot, a $200 million sleeper that might "sneak up on some people," Jeter was showing a public display of affection for the underdog.

If only because he's become one.

Jeter delivered better, more purposeful cuts in a 4-3 victory over Minnesota on Monday night, and even hit two hard shots in the air -- one a foul liner to the right field corner, the other a fair liner to left in the seventh for his fourth and final out. Yes, a right-minded observer might conclude that a swing-by-swing dissection of the shortstop four games into the season is no less absurd than the notion of the Yankees as underdogs.

But the man will turn 37 in June, and he is coming off a dreadful season by his own standards, not to mention the contract negotiation from hell. So this is the season that will determine whether 2010 was a mere aberration, or the beginning of Derek Jeter's end.

In that context, Jeter's first 14 at bats are worthy of serious scrutiny, even from the captain himself. On his way into work Monday, unhappy over his early parade of ground balls, Jeter told himself he was through fretting over the changes hitting coach Kevin Long made in his footwork, reducing his front-foot stride to no stride at all.

"I just said the heck with it," Jeter said. "I wasn't going to think about it. ... Before you're trying to think about where your foot is and you're trying not to move it, and it's just too much to think about. So today I tried not to."

Again, Jeter rarely opens these windows on his thoughts. But he hit 364 ground balls last year, and nine in the first three games this year. He needed to do something, anything, to alter his approach, whether that meant favoring Butler over UConn or admitting he wanted to silence the hitting coach's voice in his head.

"It felt good tonight," Jeter said of at-bats that included a popout, groundout, strikeout and line-out. "I had some good swings. ... All I want to do is have good at-bats and hit some balls hard. Today I was happy because one ball I hit hard down the right-field line and went foul, and then the one in my last at-bat to left field. So I'm making progress. That's the key."

Of course, Jeter was talking about his bat, not his glove. With the Yankees infield tilted heavily to its left, Jim Thome slapped a grounder toward second, right into the teeth of the shift, inspiring Jeter to scramble onto Robinson Cano's turf.

Only Jeter moved more like an old man shooing pigeons in a park, and less like the supple and graceful athlete he used to be. The shortstop booted the ball, accepted the E-6 with a smile, and returned to the only position he's ever wanted to play.

Jeter hasn't looked good moving to his left or right in these four games, but hey, maybe it's the natural effect of a raw spring on an aging ballplayer who needs additional time to get warm and loose.

Or maybe what we're watching is an iconic Yankee losing his battle with gravity, slowly but surely.

"I really believe he's going to have a good year," Joe Girardi maintained. The manager liked Jeter's swings against the Twins, whose luck here in April isn't any better than it is in October.

But Girardi did allow that concerns over Jeter's hitting -- shaped by last year's Charmin-soft .270 batting average -- represent "a legit question" in Week 1 of 2011.

"If he's not comfortable with [his new approach]," the manager said, "I can tell you one thing: Jeet's never going to let anybody know. That's just his personality. But he hit two balls hard tonight, and I thought he swung the bat well. So if he's not comfortable with it, I think he's getting more comfortable with it."

Jeter put some balls in the air against the Twins, his first since the sacrifice fly on Opening Day. He put those balls in the air, he said, because he stopped thinking about his stance and his stride and let his bat do the work.

Jeter didn't homer like Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada did, but at least the shortstop fared better than his favorite college basketball team. The shortstop won a ballgame, and went to bed knowing he'd return to his old leadoff spot Tuesday night against Twins lefty Brian Duensing.

Can Derek Jeter, underdog, shock the world over the next six months by rediscovering his dynamic skills at the plate?

"I think it would be a wonderful story," Girardi said.

In this corner of the Bronx, it would be a better story than Butler.