Jeter turns back clock on historic day

The afternoon went beyond surreal — it was magic, a near-hallucination for anyone who figured Derek Jeter’s great career was taking its final breath this season. But there he was on Saturday, not only making history as the first Yankee to reach 3,000 hits, but doing it in a larger-than-life way that is a superstar’s currency.

There’s no description for Jeter’s home run off David Price other than to say it was Jeter being Jeter, circa 1999. Actually, it was more like Reggie in 1977 — almost impossible to believe. Talk about rising to the occasion, Jeter went 5 for 5 on a day when all he needed was two hits. The last three, including the game-winning RBI in the 5-4 victory over the Rays, were a gift to the Yankees and to the fans. Perhaps there was also an unspoken take-that to the doubters who’ve ridden shotgun on The Captain’s descent into mediocrity.

But all of that was wiped away by a performance so unlikely, Jeter himself seemed stunned. “If I’d written this script and handed it to someone,” he said, “I still wouldn’t have bought it.”

That’s because Jeter had gone 333 at-bats without a home run at Yankee Stadium. Because he was only 4 for 18 (.222) since coming off the disabled list last week, and, seemingly stuck on 2998, lost at least four at-bats when Friday’s game was rained out.

Jeter dismissed the setback with typical stoicism. Inside, however, the shortstop was feeling boxed in by the weight — and wait — for 3,000. Time was running out before next Thursday’s series opener in Toronto.

“I’d been lying for quite some time about the pressure,” Jeter said. “After Friday, I was like, ‘Damn, now I’ve only got two games (left on the homestand).’”

It didn’t help Jeter’s chances to be up against Price, against whom he’d hit just .240 for his career. Waiting behind Price in the rotation was James Shields, whose 2.47 ERA placed him fifth in the American League this year.

Yet, there was something different about Jeter’s swing Saturday — his body language, his vibe, were different, as if he were suddenly playing at a higher level. Price greeted Jeter with seven straight fastballs in the first inning but was unable to put him away. On the eighth fastball, clocked at 95 mph, Jeter punched a single through the left side, setting in motion a whole new reality inside the ballpark.

The game was now nothing more than a way to kill time before Jeter’s next at-bat. Fans temporarily lost interest; they hit the concession stands, used the rest rooms, texted their friends, all while waiting for the Yankees’ batting order to turn over again.

Finally in the third inning, everyone in the Stadium was standing as Jeter walked to the plate. He took a deep breath, the kind that stretched the lining of his lungs and prepared for Round 2 with Price. The Rays’ lefty was less interested in the show than in the war, taking Jeter seven pitches into the at-bat before the count ran full.

By this time Price had thrown Jeter 15 pitches since the first inning — 11 fastballs, three change-ups, one slider. He had yet to show Jeter the curveball, however, which is why Price finally summoned it, figuring he could prevail with the element of surprise.

“I felt he was seeing the ball pretty good. If I get (the curveball) down, maybe he hits a ground ball to the left side and we get him out,” Price said.

He paused before ruefully pointing out, “I left it up a little bit.”

That’s all Jeter needed, the extra few inches of breathing room to extend his arms and drive the ball deep to left. The shortstop said, “I knew it wasn’t going to be caught” but was unsure whether he’d completed the miracle by clearing the wall.

The crowd had gone completely quiet between pitches during the at-bat. That’s how intensely everyone was rooting, or more accurately, praying. The silence in the ballpark allowed the crack of the bat to resonate everywhere, so while Jeter might’ve been unsure of the fly ball’s path, 48,103 witnesses knew — by the sheer sound of contact — that history had been re-written at that very moment.

The record books will tell you Jeter is the 28th player in baseball history to amass 3,000 hits, and the fourth youngest to do so. The Captain also reached the threshold faster than Pete Rose, the all-time hit king, who was eight days older at the time of his 3,000th hit.

Jeter, of course, won’t speak seriously about 4,000, as he still has work to do in the here-and-now. Until Saturday, he was hitting ground balls at an extraordinarily high rate, nearly 2 of every 3 times he made contact, and had the lowest on-base percentage among the Yankee starters.

Maybe that calculus is re-factored now, as Jeter’s teammates have insisted all along. All The Captain needed was a way to escape the burden of 3,000 and he’d be ready for a time-tunnel journey — if not 1999, then maybe 2009.

Maybe that’s why Jeter looked so happy after being mobbed at home plate. It was joy and relief compressed into a smile so broad it turned Jeter’s eyes to slit. Of all the Yankees who greeted him, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera were first in line — Posada hugging him tight enough to serve as a man’s substitute for tears.

Posada later admitted, “I became emotional” in celebrating for his friend. Even the Rays were swept up in the moment, gathering at the mound and clapping in respect. Evan Longoria went as far as to tip his cap.

As for Price, he took his place on the wrong side of history with grace, if not a touch of humor.

“I didn’t care if (Jeter) got it off me as long as he didn’t drive in a run or score a run. He did all those things in one at-bat,” the lefthander said. “Good for him.”