Jeter flip throws N.Y. back on track

Igniting win streak, shortstop secures spot as Yanks leader at 27

October 20, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - No Most Valuable Player trophy is awarded for the divisional round of baseball's three-tiered playoff system, but Derek Jeter won it anyway.

There may not be an actual award, but everyone who played in the five-game series between the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics knows that the Yankees probably wouldn't be two games up on the Seattle Mariners in the American League Championship Series right now if not for what Jeter did when they were two games down to the A's a week ago.

It was Jeter's instinctive cutoff play on a seemingly botched outfield relay that protected a 1-0 lead in Game 3 of the Division Series and allowed the Yankees to embark on the five-game winning streak that has put them in excellent position to reach the World Series for the fifth time in six years.

And no one was the least bit surprised.

"Obviously, Derek is a great ballplayer," teammate Andy Pettitte said. "He always, when we get into the postseason, he seems to bring his focus to a different level and just drives in big runs for us, gets big hits when we need it, [and] as he showed in this past series, he makes great plays when we need a play to be made. That was really a great play."

Everyone saw what was happening. The A's were going to tie Game 3 because Shane Spencer's relay throw from right field sailed over a pair of Yankees cutoff men. Jeter raced across the infield, plucked the ball on one bounce and made an off-balance flip to catcher Jorge Posada to get base runner Jeremy Giambi on a very close play at home plate.

Giambi was so surprised, he didn't even slide.

"It was obviously a huge lift for us," Pettitte said, "because I know sitting on the bench, I saw the ball go over the cutoff man's head, and I thought the run was going to score right there. And then Derek came out of nowhere."

The Yankees have gotten used to that sort of thing. Jeter has been their big-play guy since he arrived in the major leagues to stay in 1996. He is so unflappable that even his older teammates look to him as a model of postseason composure.

"Here's a guy who has stepped on the field and never lost," said Mariners reliever and former Yankees teammate Jeff Nelson. "He just knows what to do. He's one of the most clutch players I've ever played around. I don't want to see him up there in those situations, because he's going to come through.

"He sees plays happen before they happen. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time."

Apparently, the right place for Jeter is squarely in the spotlight, where he is almost too comfortable.

"I've played in a lot of games in the postseason ever since my first year," Jeter said. "You have to enjoy playing in this type of atmosphere. Obviously, you're under the microscope; everything you do is magnified. Just because you enjoy it doesn't mean you're going to go out there and be successful, but you can't shy away from it."

Instead, he has embraced it like no other player of his time. He has taken advantage of the relatively new three-tiered playoff system and the Yankees' great six-year run to play in 68 postseason games and - at just 27 - already owns the postseason record for career hits.

"It's interesting," manager Joe Torre said. "They put that stat on the board about the hits; I had no clue. You say, well, that's got to be a mistake, this kid has only been around for a few years, and then you realize his whole major-league career has been postseason."

While fellow superstar shortstops Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra might put up bigger regular-season numbers, it is Jeter's ability to excel under playoff pressure - and to do so with just enough flair to stand above the crowd - that has made him one of the game's biggest stars.

"Maybe he can't hit home runs with either one of the guys, or maybe he can't run with A-Rod and maybe he can't cover as much ground as A-Rod and doesn't have the arm that Nomar has," Torre said, "and yet there's something about him - the whole package - that makes him very special and a good fit for what we do."

So is this a case of nature or nurture? Was Jeter born to be the coolest customer in October since Mr. October himself?

"I think you can be born with it," Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson said, "but it has to manifest. ... It has to be nurtured.

"Jeter is a six-year player and he's certainly a more mature player than I was at his age, and I had one of my best years at 27 years old. He's very confident. Very poised. He's poised like a 13-year veteran. He went 0-for-5 [in Game 1] and you'd never know it. He just knows that he's going to do something good today."

Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella says Jeter's winning personality is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

"I think that's innate, you've got to have it in you," Piniella said. "You can improve on your instincts, but you don't learn them."

Somehow, Jeter manages to exude supreme confidence without appearing cocky, something Jackson was never able to pull off.

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