“The ballplayer who loses his head, who can’t keep his cool, is worse than no ballplayer at all.”
– Lou Gehrig
YANKEES 4, RAYS 2
It’s almost as if there were two different stories being played out at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night.
One was Derek Jeter’s attempt to become the all-time hits leader in Yankees history. The other was the game itself as the Yankees attempted to come back from a 2-0 deficit that held up for eight innings.
On both fronts, Yankee fans were left smiling.
Jeter, almost poetically with his inside-out swing, slapped a first-pitch fastball from Jeff Niemann down the first-base line past a diving Chris Richard for a single to right to lead of the seventh inning to tie the legendary Lou Gehrig with 2,721 hits as a Yankee.
The 45,848 in attendance, including Jeter’s parents and actress Minka Kelly, stood and applauded for a full five minutes as Jeter removed his batting helmet to acknowledge the outpouring of support the Yankee captain received from his adoring fans.
These same fans watched a skinny young kid with a love for baseball emerge in 1995 and in 2009 they saw a veteran All-Star elevate himself to the same perch held by the man they still call “The Iron Horse.”
A quiet leader linked to another legendary quiet leader. Jeter was humbled and truly touched by the emotion from fans, his teammates and even the opposition Tampa Bay Rays.
“You look at all the great players that have played in this organization throughout the years,” Jeter said to MLB.com. “To say that you have more hits than them or at least tied for the most hits in the history of the organization is definitely hard to believe. It means a lot.”
Unfortunately, Jeter’s hit did not lead to a rally that won the game. Rays starter Jeff Niemann, who had flustered and flummoxed Yankee batters all evening with an assortment of junk of which Jamie Moyer would have been proud. He fanned Mark Teixeira with two on and two out to end the threat Jeter started.
But when the game reached the bottom of the eighth and Niemann retook the mound, the Yankees mounted another one of their spirited comebacks that have propelled them to the best record in the major leagues.
Alex Rodriguez took Niemann’s first offering and deposited it on a line drive into centerfield. Rays manager Joe Maddon then oddly summoned right-hander Lance Cormier, who has pitched on all three nights of the series, to pitch to left-hand batter Hideki Matsui with a left-hander warmed up in the bullpen.
Matsui ripped a 1-0 Cormier fastball down the right-field line for a single and Rodriguez steamed into third base. Then the Rays’ defense let them down badly.
Nick Swisher grounded a ball right to Richard at first but Richard air-mailed his throw to second base over the head of shortstop Jason Bartlett for an error as Rodriguez scored and pinch-runner Jerry Hairston hustled to third.
Maddon finally did bring in lefty Brian Shouse and he did retire left-hand hitting Robinson Cano on a strikeout. Maddon again went to the bullpen for right-hander Grant Balfour to replace Shouse despite the fact pinch-hitter Jorge Posada was 3-for-3 in his career off Balfour.
But Maddon made the move nonetheless. He paid for it too.
Posada blasted a 3-2 pitch deep into the September skyline of right-field into the bleachers for a three-run home run and it gave the Yankees their 44th comeback victory of the season.
“It would be tough to lose a game when he ties Lou Gehrig,” Posada said to MLB.com. “We needed to win this one.”
However, none of Posada’s heroics would have been possible were it not for the Yankees’ bullpen, which actually pitched a no-hitter for six innings.
The Rays scored two runs off starter Joba Chamberlain in the first inning. One came on Jason Bartlett’s leadoff home run. Carl Crawford followed with a single and Chamberlain allowed Crawford to take second on a wild pitch and third on a steal.
Two batters later, Pat Burrell scored Crawford with a bloop single to left to make it 2-0.
The score stayed that way until the eighth inning rally. Niemman, a 26-year-old right-hand rookie, pitched into the eighth, scattering eight hits and giving up one run. He walked one and struck out eight.
Chamberlain toiled just three innings in a continuation of the Yankees’ effort to limit his innings pitched so he can be available for the playoffs. Chamberlain gave up three hits, all in the first inning.
“I was getting a little frustrated because I was throwing well,” Chamberlain said, “but it was definitely my best start overall in a while, so I was pretty happy with it and happy to be part of this game, and more importantly the win.”
After Burrell’s hit in the first Yankee pitching gave up no hits and only gave up a pair of walks — one in the fifth and and one in the ninth.
Alfredo Aceves pitched three scoreless frames in relief of Chamberlain, striking out three batters and walking one. Jonathan Albaladejo (4-1) pitched two perfect innings to get the victory. Brian Bruney and Phil Coke shared the ninth, with Coke — who was called on to get the last out — retiring pinch-hitter Gabe Kapler on a strikeout for his second save of the season.
Jeter’s magical night was set up from his first at-bat. Having coming into the game 0-for-12 in the series against the Rays, Jeter decided to resort to the smarts that have made him a Yankee fan favorite.
“I noticed that [Rays third baseman Evan] Longoria was playing back so I decided that I would try to bunt.” Jeter laid down a perfect one that eluded Niemann and left Longoria with no play by the time he reached it. No. 2,719 down and two to go.
After grounding out to short in the third, Jeter came up again in the fifth with one out. Niemann battled him to a 2-2 count before Jeter lifted a high drive that landed over the head of a clearly injured center-fielder B.J. Upton for a ground-rule double. No. 2,720 down and one to go.
Upton would leave the game in the sixth inning complaining of a recurrin
g ankle injury.
But nothing could take the stage away from Jeter and his moment in the seventh inning, although Posada’s three-run game-winning homer came pretty close.
The victory was the Yankees fourth straight and kept them nine games ahead in the American League East of the second-place Boston Red Sox with just 21 games left in the season. The Yankees magic number is now at 14.
“I think now, the most important thing for everyone on our team is to remember first, we haven’t accomplished anything yet,” said Jeter.
The Yankees will have a day off Thursday before opening a three-game weekend home series with the Baltimore Orioles.
Jeter will attempt to break Gehrig’s mark against rookie right-hander Chris Tillman (1-3), who will pitch for the O’s. Andy Pettitte (13-6) will pitch for the Yankees.
Gametime is 7:05 p.m. EDT.