Jeter has chance to erase thoughts about tough year

After posting his lowest batting average since his After posting his lowest batting average since his rookie season, is it possible that free agent-to-be Derek Jeter is finally on the down side of his career? Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Before this season, Derek Jeter's lowest regular-season batting average since he became the Yankees' starting shortstop in 1996 was the .291 he hit in 1997.

The Yankees played one round in the postseason in 1997 and Jeter batted .333.

Jeter's highest batting average was the .349 he hit in 1999. The Yankees won the World Series that year and Jeter hit .375 combined in three postseason series.

Of course, in neither of those seasons was Jeter 36 years old and in the last year of his contract. And in neither of those seasons was Jeter's ability to get base hits questioned the way it was in this just-completed season, which he ended Sunday with a career-low .270 average.

As the Yankees enter the 14th postseason in Jeter's 15 full seasons, the defending World Series champions have question marks in their pitching rotation. Their ability to beat good lefthanded pitching is in doubt. Even the incomparable Mariano Rivera has been shaky of late.

But another legitimate question mark will be the first man to step into the batter's box for the Yankees in ALDS Game 1 Wednesday night against the Twins.

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Which Jeter will show up this postseason? The one who hit .361 in his first postseason (1996)? The one who hit .344 in his most recent postseason (2009)? Or the one who hit .235 in 1998 or .226 in 2001?

And then there's this: Is it possible that some people have written off Derek Jeter?

"I don't know," he said recently. "Because I don't listen to what you guys say or what anyone writes. Sometimes you're not going to be able to get hits all the time."

Can Jeter live up to his .313 career postseason average? And if he doesn't, how will that affect the unprecedented contract negotiations that he and the Yankees will begin soon after the World Series?

The Yankees' policy under the Steinbrenner sons and general manager Brian Cashman has been to not negotiate new contracts during the season. Not for Cashman himself, not for manager Joe Girardi, not for Mariano Rivera, not for Jorge Posada - and not for Derek Jeter.

So to Jeter and Cashman, the contract is a non-issue. Jeter likely will re-sign with the Yankees; any other outcome is virtually unthinkable. But a top-notch postseason and a 28th world championship could make it easier for the Yankees to swallow having to pay premium money to a shortstop coming off an unremarkable offensive year who will turn 37 next June.

By the same token, a poor postseason could cost Jeter a few dollars. Not that he needs them. But the Yankees wouldn't want to insult their captain with a low-ball offer based on a shaky playoff series or two. A bad October could make the contract talks more problematic.

The good news? Jeter seems to have gotten his stroke back, hitting .287 in September/October and picking up two hits in each of his last four games. He credited the work he's been doing with hitting coach Kevin Long.

"You make some adjustments, continue to work and try to improve," Jeter said. "It's difficult when you're trying to make those adjustments in the middle of the season, but we're making strides in the right direction. I just hope we can continue that."

One more thing: If you think Jeter is worried about his contract or has lost his confidence, you haven't been paying attention during the previous decade and a half.

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Jeter isn't looking to impress anyone or turn it around or earn that next contract. Most athletes say they are all about winning. Jeter actually means it.

"The one thing you understand when you're here is it's not how you start, it's how you finish, especially when you're going to the playoffs," he said. "Regardless if you had a great regular season or a poor regular season, when you get in these games, you can contribute and forget about what's happened before that."

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