TORONTO – On Monday morning, the Yankees were greeted by a big, bold headline that would have made the New York City tabloids proud.
“Is It All Over?” was the headline atop Page 2 of the Sun’s pullout sports section. Yes, the Blue Jays were still leading the American League East, but the city was in a near panic after injuries to starters Brett Lawrie and Jose Bautista the day before.
“Did you see this?” I asked Derek Jeter in the visiting locker room shortly before 5 p.m.
“I don’t read that stuff,” Jeter said, scoffing. I’m not sure if he meant the Canadian dailies, or newspapers in general.
Jeter is in his 20th and final season in the big leagues. He will turn 40 years old on Wednesday. He understands as well as anyone in the game how pointless it is to rule out a team at this stage of a season – never mind a Jays team that was sitting atop the AL East on Monday and beat the Yankees, 8-3.
We’ve reached a point where almost every team is still alive in late June. As of Monday, 24 of the 30 Major League teams were within five games of first place or the wild card. That’s 80 percent.
Heading into Monday’s series opener, the Yankees were tied with the Jays in the loss column, and they were one of three teams deadlocked for the second AL wild-card spot. The Royals were half a game back.
“You don’t even think about it,” Jeter said, expressionless. “I don’t even think about wild card or playoffs. We haven’t even played half a season yet. So I don’t even think about it.”
I asked Jeter if it had taken him a long time to figure it out, to find the equilibrium required to navigate a long baseball season.
“No,” he said, cutting me off. He’s not one for talking about himself before games. “You play 162 games. You’ll have good stretches and bad stretches. Players are going to play well for a month, bad months, that’s just what happens. But it’s too early to be even thinking about playoffs or anything else. It’s a long ways away.”
Playoffs? Jeter spat out the word the way former NFL coach Jim Mora did in his famous rant. He has played in 158 postseason games, by far the most in baseball history. He’s ninth all-time with 3,386 career hits. Jeter did not get that far by overreacting to the inevitable peaks and valleys you encounter along the way.
Jeter had a day off Monday. The Yankees are in a stretch of 15 straight games against AL East opponents and manager Joe Girardi said he didn’t want him to play nine days in a row. Jeter has been struggling at the plate. He went 1 for 12 in a weekend series against the Orioles and is batting .253 in June with three extra-base hits and three walks in 82 plate appearances.
Still, Jeter was his typically casual self Monday afternoon. He projected the naturally cool manner that set him apart from the painfully self-aware Alex Rodriguez, and which allowed Jeter to perform so well under pressure.
That’s why it was hard for me to believe he didn’t even contemplate the postseason. Come on, I said, it’s your last year, you don’t think about the playoffs even a little bit?
“Nope,” he said.
It would be a great way to go out, you have to admit.
“Sure, it would be a great way to go out,” Jeter said, “but we’re not even halfway through the year. It’s not a football season where you play 16 games. We play a lot of games. What are we in? June? I don’t think about the playoffs in June.”
Girardi, who has been around a lot of winning teams, said you’ll drive yourself nuts if you fixate on the standings at this time of year. Left fielder Brett Gardner, who has been watching Jeter go about his business for eight seasons, said Jeter has been an ideal role model.
“I think one thing he’s really good at is treating every day the same, whether it’s April 3 or Sept. 20,” Gardner said. “It’s easier said than done. There’s a lot of ups and downs in the course of the season.”
There have been a lot of low moments. As of Monday, the Yankees had been outscored by 30 runs on the season, the fourth-worst run differential in the AL. They were 12th in runs, 10th in slugging.
The Yanks have been without three starters: CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova. Nova is out for the year after elbow surgery.
Pineda is on the 60-day DL with a shoulder ailment. Sabathia, who has been out since May with a knee injury, has begun throwing in Tampa.
Somehow, they were four games over .500. It was largely due to Japanese rookie pitching sensation Masahiro Tanaka, who is 11-2 and has given the Yanks a quality start in all 15 of his appearances. Tanaka has been the difference between playoff contention and mediocrity.
“We’ve had to deal with some things this year, and I think our guys have done a pretty good job,” Girardi said. “You lose 60 percent of your rotation, that’s not easy to replace, and we’re right there in the middle of it. So we’re in a pretty good situation, in a sense.”
The sense among a lot of New York media is that the Yankees are just holding on. You can only survive for so long with a patchwork starting staff. Chase Whitley, a converted reliever who had won his first three decisions, got rocked for seven runs in the first two innings Monday.
After winning four straight, the Yanks lost three in a row by a combined score of 22-4. But as Jeter says, a lot can happen between now and October.
It would be a fitting ending, a great story, if the most admired man in baseball got to the playoffs in his final hurrah.
“It’s always fun,” said Jeter. “It’s what you play for. I mean, that’s why you play the games, to get an opportunity to win. But you can’t think about that now.”
It’s probably best to ignore the standings. If Jeter and the Yanks took a hard, honest look, they’d realize they’re lucky to be where they are.