By Ken Davidoff
DETROIT — They just kept coming and coming and coming, a one-inning charge reminiscent of their 1998 ancestors. The first nine Yankees came to bat in the third inning Wednesday night at Comerica Park, and all nine recorded a hit, all off longtime nemesis David Price. The next two batters added sacrifice flies.
And when the dust cleared later, en route to the Yankees’ 8-4 thumping of Price and the Tigers that allowed them to gain ground in both the American League East (they’re now six games behind Baltimore) and the race for the second AL wild card (they’re 2 ½ behind Seattle), you looked down the RBI column of your scorebook, and you saw single lines running down your page like raindrops.
The only player with two lines in the RBI column was the only guy still around from 1998: Derek Jeter, who contributed an RBI double (his first extra-base hit since Aug. 11) to break a 0-0 tie and the inning’s second sacrifice fly to wrap up the explosive inning. And so we received another example of why Joe Girardi will very likely keep Jeter high in his batting order through the captain’s impending retirement.
“I’ve said this many times,” Girardi told The Post Wednesday afternoon, proactively diminishing the news value of his words. “It’s not like we have a bunch of guys hitting .300.”
I had asked Girardi if he thought it was just too difficult, too hairy, to drop Jeter down in his lineup. This question emanated from Girardi’s decision Wednesday to keep Jacoby Ellsbury in the leadoff spot, where he had thrived the two prior games, and demote Brett Gardner, who had missed three games with a right ankle injury, to the eighth spot. That marked the first time that Gardner, Jeter and Ellsbury all started and didn’t bat 1-2-3 since May 9, when Ellsbury and Jeter kicked things off and Gardner hit seventh.
To Girardi’s assertion that the rest of his hitters weren’t dominating, I acknowledged its accuracy. Yet certainly, I offered, he has more lineup choices than he did a month ago thanks to the Yankees’ revamped roster.
“Yeah,” Girardi said. “But it’s not like we have a bunch of guys hitting .300. So that’s why we’ve kept it.”
What Girardi understandably neglected to point out, and what has changed the equation of this conversation, is just how awful Jeter has been in August. Even after his productive night (he added a walk in the eighth), which contributed to an easy night for winning pitcher Shane Greene, Jeter owns an awful .226/.247/.290 slash line for the month. While it’s true, as Girardi stated, that no regular on the team carries a .300 batting average, Jeter’s .315 on-base percentage ranks him seventh on the team and his .634 OPS 11th; his .267 batting average places him fifth.
Jeter’s .308/.392/.462 line against Price, against whom he memorably homered for his 3,000th career hit in 2011, made Wednesday’s reconfiguration simple, as did the rest of the Yankees’ numbers against the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner. Ellsbury singled twice off Price and hit the first third-inning sacrifice fly to lift his overall numbers against the tall lefty to .352/.368/.593, whereas Gardner’s soft infield single in two encounters lifted him to a lowly .136/.269/.136. Throw in Ellsbury’s power surge Monday and Tuesday, when he totaled three homers from the pole position, and Girardi didn’t have to think too much.
The rest of the season won’t be simple, now that Girardi has Martin Prado to deploy along with a somewhat improved Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and even Ichiro Suzuki along with the track records (if not necessarily great Yankees performances) of Stephen Drew and Chase Headley.
As Price said after the game, in agreeing that the Yankees are a tougher foe now than earlier in the season, “The guys they acquired have done really well, Prado and Headley, those guys, they add a lot of versatility to that lineup.”
You could argue the Yankees are prioritizing the ego of their fading legend, whom the Tigers honored in a nice pregame ceremony, over their team fortunes. Then again, given how many times Jeter has returned from the dead and how much he enjoys proving his critics wrong, the mere printing of this column probably ensures he’ll have a bounce-back September and render this discussion moot. Shoot, he got the ball rolling in that direction Wednesday. As Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said, Jeter’s double was “his vintage swing, an inside-out line drive to right.”
Do the Yankees have enough room for error to bet on one last Jeter hot streak?
We’ll find out, with Girardi set to maneuver many but not all of his pieces to try to produce a miracle. On this night, against a bona fide ace, they managed pretty well.