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Red-hot Jeter powering Yankees

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Bob Klapisch

Bob Klapisch covers baseball for The Record in New Jersey and worked at the New York Post and New York Daily News. The author of five books, he was recently voted a top-five columnist in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

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It was before the Yankees’ second game of the season — just 24 hours into their reconnaissance mission against the Rays (which, by the way, ended in a disastrous sweep). Derek Jeter took one look at the lineup card and saw he’d been busted down a rank to DH for the day.

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Jeter never said a word about the enforced rest, but the expression on his face required no forensic analysis.

“You think Derek is happy about this?” one member of the organization asked rhetorically. He didn’t wait for an answer. Jeter, who turns 38 in June, has much to prove to the world, including his manager Joe Girardi, about his durability as an everyday shortstop.

The captain isn’t interested in scaling back to 125-30 games a year. He wants no part of the rotation at DH, even if it creates room for an extra right-handed hitter when the Yankees face a lefty. Jeter still thinks he belongs on the field 150 times a summer, and if you think that’s delusional, consider what a confidante recently said about Jeter’s long-term goal.

“Derek wants to play until he’s 45,” the friend said. “Whether the Yankees will let him do it, I don’t know. We’ll see if they offer him another contract (after 2013). But Derek still has a lot left in him.”

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So far, Jeter is off to a surreal start. After racking up three more hits against the Twins on Wednesday night, including his fourth HR of the season, Jeter raised his average to .389, third-best in the American League.

Of course, the April sample size is too small to be conclusive, but Jeter’s resurgence pre-dates Opening Day. Since last July 5, when he reached his 3,000th career hit, Jeter is batting .334, and had raised his average almost 70 points against right-handed pitching. This year alone, Jeter is 11-for-19 (.579) against lefties.

Even more startling is Jeter’s surge in power: The four home runs represent his best start ever after 12 games. Only Josh Hamilton and Josh Willingham have hit more HRs in the American League.

That 1.089 OPS is crazy, though, it’s otherworldly, and logic says Jeter’s home run/at-bat ratio will eventually recede to its career norm (one every 40 or so at-bats instead of its current 1-per-13). But more and more, Jeter is demonstrating that his .270 average in 2010 was an aberration, and not the ushering in of a career-ending decline phase.

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While Jeter politely traces his comeback to the relief of finally surpassing 3,000 hits, friends insist there’s a second version to the story. Jeter, they say, rediscovered his swing while on the disabled list in Tampa in May and June, when he paired up with Gary Denbo, the Yankees’ former hitting instructor.

With help from a trusted friend, Jeter uncluttered his mechanics, streamlining his approach through the strike zone. He’s looked like a 20-something ever since at the plate, although Girardi will inevitably be torn between riding Jeter’s hot streak and the need to rest a star who’s pushing 40.

That’s no small conflict, given the Yankees’ uneven performance so far. Even with so little data to work with, team officials are concerned about Hiroki Kuroda’s transition to the American League (he’s been battered in two of his first three starts) and Alex Rodriguez’s .222 average and one home run in 45 at-bats. To make matters worse, Brett Gardner, who was hitting .321, is now on the disabled list with an elbow injury.

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The Yankees took their first steps toward addressing the deficit by flip-flopping A-Rod and Robinson Cano in the 3-4 slots — at least against right-handed pitching. The idea, of course, is to create better opportunities for Rodriguez with Cano hitting behind him, instead of vice versa. But until there’s a change in A-Rod’s hitting pattern, and until Cano and Curtis Granderson get hot, Jeter is catalyzing the lineup on his own.

Question is, can he carry the Bombers through a semi-critical six-game stretch against the Red Sox and Rangers?

There’s always a reason to pay attention to a Yankees’ weekend in Fenway, and this one is no different. The Sox are already in crisis, and Bobby Valentine, in particular, is being targeted by fans who are wondering what they’ve inherited in the post-Terry Francona era.

The fact that Valentine was booed during Wednesday’s 6-3 loss to Texas wasn’t lost on him. Bobby V is smart enough to understand that questioning Kevin Youkilis (and being in last place) strips him of whatever equity he might’ve had with a fan base that trusted Francona.

That’s why Valentine needs a strong series from the back of his rotation — Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard. He needs them to shut down Jeter even more than Girardi needs his captain to keep hitting.

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And therein lies the Yankees’ catch-22: Can Girardi stick to his plan of resting/DH’ing Jeter once a week? Or does he allow Jeter to run the table on his hot streak?

History says it’s better to be cautious, even at the risk of alienating Jeter. Only two shortstops in major league history topped .800 OPS in their age-38 seasons — Honus Wagner in 1912 and Luke Appling in 1949. The rest were either in fast decline or had held on only as part-timers, failing to get enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

Jeter, however, has no interest in precedent. He’s being driven by a separate agenda, which includes shaking his fist at history. For now, it’s working. Or as his friend says, “Derek is loving every minute of this.”

Tagged: Red Sox, Twins, Yankees, Rangers, Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano

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