LET THIS BE A LESSON, Little Leaguers, that you simply never give up. You don't stand around watching a play. You go and make the play.
Derek Jeter did just that and bought the Yankees another day. If the Yankees rally and actually steal this thing, then you will not soon forget how Jeter made it possible in the seventh inning last night, how he hustled over from shortstop and performed the kind of clutch option pitch that was smoother than any Oklahoma Sooners quarterback.
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Joe Torre insisted that the Yankees practice the play in spring training, but really, how many times? Twice? And who would ever think they'd need it, especially in a situation like this? "Yeah, we worked on it, I think," said third baseman Scott Brosius, with a sarcastic snicker, "but it's still an incredible heads-up play. You don't practice the old run-towards-the-dugout-backhand-flip at home." As he watched Shane Spencer's throw from rightfield, Jeter knew something wasn't right. It soared past the cutoff men, second baseman Alfonso Soriano and first baseman Tino Martinez.
So Jeter reacted. That's what championship players do. They make a difference, particularly when it truly counts, and when the margin of error is almost nil.
Imagine, racing across the infield just to be a secondary backup, then pushing the ball inside catcher Jorge Posada's glove from 10 feet away just in time to save the season.
"What in the heck is Jeter doing there," wondered A's centerfielder Johnny Damon.
Good question. Probably only one player would have the good sense to stray from his territory and make himself at home in another.
"That was my play," Jeter said. "That's my job to be there. I've got to read the play." With his decision to hustle and make one unorthrodox yet memorable throw, Jeter gave his reputation as a clutch player another nudge. It surely takes a place next to his leadoff homer in Game 4 of the Subway Series that sucked the momentum right out of the Mets, and ahead of the deep circus throws from short that Jeter makes a habit of giving every autumn.
"When you see certain players once in a while, you might catch an amazing play," said Mussina. "but when you see them every day, they seem to come up with something quite often."
This is what keeps Jeter in the company of the game's top shortstops. He doesn't have the power of Alex Rodriguez, and arguably lacks the all-around ability of Nomar Garciaparra. But he has four rings; they don't. He rises in October and becomes a winner, performing the kind of feats that are slowly becoming routine for him.
"The kid has got great instincts," Torre said. "What he just did was obviously the play of the game."
Against perhaps any other shortstop, the A's score a run and tie Game 3. Terrence Long's hard liner to rightfield was deep enough to send Giambi circling the bases, and Spencer's throw faulty enough to allow Giambi to score. This was supposed to be the play that broke the Yankees' heart. Through seven innings they received their money's worth from Mussina, who was purchased in the offseason to pitch in games like this. They clung to a 1-0 lead, thanks to Posada's solo homer, when Long made the hardest contact by an A's player all day.
Sure, a few other factors bailed the Yankees out on this one.
Since Spencer missed the cutoff man, Giambi felt he'd arrive well before the throw and therefore didn't have the good sense to slide home. Wrong move. And yes, the tag by Posada might have happened a split-second after Giambi's right foot landed on the plate.
But this play was made by Jeter, not by luck.
"There's no way a shortstop would be there to back up," said Damon. "I saw him streaking across the field. The shovel pass was perfect. It saved the game for them."
Yes, today represents a new day for the Yankees. Momentum has a way of shifting suddenly, along with pressure, in a short series. Today, Game 4 now appears to be a game the A's must win, or else face a 3,000-mile overnight trip back to the Bronx, where strange things can happen. Orlando Hernandez has the ball now, and while it wasn't a solid regular season for him by any means, he is back in his element in the postseason, where El Duque tends to come out a winner.
Just like the shortstop who has given him a chance.