So how exactly do you put a bow on a game like this? By now you know that Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit on Saturday afternoon, and you probably also know that he did it in ridiculously dramatic fashion. My first inclination was to give a short summary, the kind you used to see in the papers in the out-of-town scores column, but as Dr. Jeter reminded us, “We need a victory,” which makes this game important. So…
For the last few weeks A.J. Burnett has been the team’s second-most consistent starting pitcher, and early on he looked fairly dominant with two strikeouts in the top of the first. With David Price on the mound for the Rays, it certainly seemed like hits would be at a premium throughout the afternoon. Jeter, of course, led off the bottom of the inning, and the crowd was amped, but not overly so. He worked the count full, fouled off a couple pitches, and then finally pounded a ground ball through the hole at short for his 2,999th hit. The Stadium exploded, but it was kind of a selfish cheer; they were only partially cheering for Jeter, mainly they were cheering for themselves — “He’s gonna get it today! We’re gonna see it!”
In the bottom of the second the Rays reminded us that there was actually a game going on. Burnett set down the first two batters of the frame, but then Matt Joyce launched a long home run into right, giving the Rays the first run of the game. Partially lost in the Captain’s Quest has been the resurgence of the Red Sox and the perseverance of the Rays. A loss here would put the Yankees as close to third place as first.
But Burnett got back on the beam in the third, striking out two more (he would total nine strikeouts in 5.2 innings). It certainly didn’t look like Rays would get much more off of him.
Brett Gardner grounded out to open the third, and then Jeter came up for the at bat that everyone was waiting for. The Stadium noise completely drowned out Bob Sheppard’s recorded announcement, and everyone in the house was standing, living and dying on each pitch. I spoke with a friend who was at the game and he described it as a tennis match atmosphere, with the crowd buzzing after each pitch, then quickly silencing in tense anticipation of the next. It came across on television as well, especially when Jeter swung and fouled off pitches deep into a 3-2 count. As each foul flared off into the seats above the Yankee dugout, the crowd exhaled as one, groaning with disappointment.
Price delivered the eighth pitch of the at bat, a slightly flat curve ball that arced directly into Jeter’s wheelhouse. You’ve seen this swing a thousand times. He pulled his hands in just a bit, turned his hips to meet the pitch, made pure contact on the sweet part of the bat, then sprinted out of the box and fired his bat back towards the on-deck circle.
Meanwhile the ball was soaring towards the gap in left center field, an obvious hit at the very least. As the crowd noise escalated, Michael Kay’s voice rose to a fever pitch, and outfielders Joyce and B.J. Upton slowed their pursuit, everyone realized at the same time that Jeter had done the impossible, the same as he always has. It has been almost thirteen months since he had hit a ball over the fence at Yankee Stadium, and this one actually carried beyond the lower bleachers in left, settling into the meaty mitts of a kid named Christian López who was seated next to his father in the first row of the second tier of bleachers.
As Jeter slowed from his sprint and into a trot as he rounded first base, he allowed a quick smile, perhaps as he noticed Tampa Bay first baseman tipping his cap. By the time he was approaching the plate, his team stood waiting, with old friend Jorge Posada fittingly offering the first congratulations with a bear hug that was probably more about Jeter’s first 2,999 hits than this one. Rivera was next in line, and then the entire team joined in, hugging, high-fiving, helmet-banging. DH Johnny Damon and the Rays had been watching from the top deck of the visitors’ dugout, and now they hopped the railing to join the rest of the 48,103 in a prolonged standing ovation.
It’s hard to explain what this moment meant. I stood in front of my television, clapping and cheering as Jeter rounded the bases, brushing tears from eyes as I watched him embracing his teammates, and my voice was shaky as I explained the significance of the hit to my children. Through all five boroughs of New York City, through Connecticut and New Jersey, and all across the country, hundreds of thousands of fans were certainly having the same conversation and feeling the same emotions. In that moment, we were one.
David Price returned to the mound after the celebration waned, and again we were reminded that there was a game going on. Curtis Granderson drew a walk, and Mark Teixeira followed with a single to push him to second. After Robinson Canó struck out, Russell Martin guided a ground ball through the hole between short and third, scoring Granderson to give the Yankees their first lead of the game at 2-1.
But the lead was short-lived. Perhaps suffering from the long home half of the third (33 pitches plus the Jeter delay), Burnett struggled a bit in the top of the fourth, walking Ben Zobrist on four pitches to lead off the inning and then serving up a home run to Upton to give the lead back to Tampa Bay at 3-2.
This was Jeter’s day, though, so it was no surprise when he led off the fifth inning with his third hit of the day, a ringing double to the wall in left field. Granderson singled him home to tie the game, then advanced to third on a Teixeira single and scored from there on a short sacrifice fly by Robinson Canó to make it 4-3 Yanks.
The game finally settled into a groove for a while, or at least until Mr. Jeter came up again with two outs and Gardner on first in the sixth and, naturally, lined a hard single to right field, his fourth hit of the game. Whether it’s because of renewed energy from his twenty-day stint on the disabled list or the adrenaline from the chase to three thousand, Jeter’s looked different lately, as evidenced by these three consecutive rockets, the home run, the double, and this single. And for any who were still a bit skeptical, Jeter added a stolen base to his stat line as he and Gardner executed a double steal before being stranded at second and third.
If it had all ended there, if the bullpen had smoothly gathered the last nine outs of the game, people still would’ve walked out of the Stadium shaking their heads, wondering how Jeter could’ve fashioned such a fairy tale ending to his quest. But it didn’t end there. The normally lock-down David Robertson entered the game in the eighth and immediately gave up a booming triple to Damon. Just a few pitches later a Zobrist single would bring Damon home with the first run Robertson had allowed in a month, and the game was tied again. But Jeter was due up third in the bottom of the eighth. He couldn’t… could he?
Turns out he could. Eduardo Nuñez (spelling Alex Rodríguez, who may or may not be missing for the next month) led off the eighth with a double, moved to third on a Gardner sacrifice, and stood waiting like Rapunzel in the castle as Jeter came to the plate and the Rays’ infield pulled in tight to cut off the run. Joel Peralta was pitching by now for Tampa Bay, and he looked ready to bury Jeter as he worked towards a 1-2 count. Afterwards, such luminaries as John Flaherty, Randy Levine, Mariano Rivera, Jay-Z, and Alex Belth would all report that they were expecting a triple to complete the cycle, but perhaps that would’ve been too much to ask for. Instead, it was a simple ground ball up the middle, easily out of reach of the drawn-in infielders, and Nuñez walked in with the go-ahead run. Jeter ran to first just like he had done 3,002 times before, rounded the bag, then turned back to the base as his arms spread wide and came together with a single clap. Have you seen that before?
He was five for five, and the crowd was in ecstasy. (By the way, the last time Jeter went 5 for 5? It was five years ago; I wrote about it the other day.) They had come hoping for history and had stumbled into a script that made A Field of Dreams look like a documentary. This, of course, was the way the game would have to end. Rivera came in to pitch the ninth, and save for a Kelly Shoppach drive to the warning track in center, it was as uneventful as ever, and the game was done. Yankees 5, Rays 4, Jeter 3003.
After the game, everyone who stepped in front of a microphone seemed to be reading from the same teleprompter. It was a Hollywood ending that would’ve been rejected by any Hollywood executive with any sense. The aging captain of the New York Yankees, battling injury and deflecting a steady barrage of questions about his decline as analysts and fans alike are wondering in print and conversation about when the team will drop him in the lineup or find a better short stop, rises to the occasion and does what no one thought possible. He hits a home run for his 3,000th hit and ends up driving in the game-winning run with his fifth hit of the day.
It was all completely unbelievable, and yet it still made perfect sense. Such is the life of Derek Sanderson Jeter.
[Photo Credit: Michael Heiman/Getty Images]