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Work with old coach helped Jeter find swing

August 22, 2011

By Jordan Schelling / MLB.com

MINNEAPOLIS — At the time, the right calf strain that sent Derek Jeter to the disabled list on June 14 appeared as though it would simply delay his chase for 3,000 hits by three weeks.Two months later, the time off looks like a blessing in disguise.In addition to getting healthy, Jeter used the time off to work on his swing with instructor Gary Denbo at the Yankees’ training complex in Tampa, Fla.

Before going on the disabled list, Jeter was hitting .260, with a .324 on-base percentage and a .324 slugging percentage. He had only 12 extra-base hits and 23 RBIs through 62 games. Denbo and Jeter worked on staying back on the ball as a potential solution to his struggles.

“You do a lot of tee work, break things down. It’s more of a feel thing,” Jeter said. “Most guys struggle, regardless of who it is, because you’re not staying back. It sounds easy: ‘Why don’t you just stay back?’ It’s not that easy. You try, but you don’t.”

As Jeter’s first pro manager back in 1993, Denbo has nearly 20 years of experience working with Jeter, and he knows the 12-time All-Star’s swing as well, if not better, than anyone in the Yankees organization.

While he may have known what the issue was throughout his early-season struggles, Jeter said having three weeks off made it a lot easier to focus on correcting it.

“Sometimes, you get an opportunity to work on things when you’re not playing in a game,” Jeter said. “It’s difficult when you’re trying to make adjustments in the middle of a game.”

Since coming off the disabled list on July 4, Jeter has batted .339, reaching base at a .392 clip and slugging .461. He has collected more extra-base hits (14) and RBIs (25) over 40 games than he had in the previous 62.

After seeing his average drop to .256 following an 0-for-4 performance in his first game back from the disabled list, Jeter has raised it to .290, with a .350 on-base percentage and a .377 slugging percentage. His numbers are still below his career slash line of .313/.383/.449, but Jeter’s current numbers are all better than they were in 2010.

Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said that Jeter has just been more comfortable at the plate lately than he was early in the season.

“Since he’s been back, he’s been incredibly consistent,” Long said. “He’s staying back better than he was earlier in the season. His strike-zone discipline has been much, much better. He’s just locked in.

“We talked about it, as far as a guy getting locked in, he hasn’t been locked in all year. And he said, ‘If I can come back and just get locked in for a month or two, my numbers are going to look a lot better.’ And they do.”

While the work Jeter put in while in Tampa looks to have helped, his improved performance also coincides with his reaching 3,000 hits on July 9 at Yankee Stadium.

Jeter went 5-for-5 that day, beginning a run of 36 games during which Jeter has batted .354/.407/.469, with two home runs, two triples, seven doubles and 23 RBIs.

But does Jeter think getting his 3,000th hit out of the way has anything to do with his performance?

“Probably, after I was in Tampa and had a chance to work on some things. I’d probably put some stock in that,” Jeter said. “I don’t think there’s much stock in right after that hit.”

While he may downplay the impact of reaching 3,000 hits, Jeter did admit in July that he felt a lot pressure to get to the mark and to do so at home in front of the New York fans. He sat out the All-Star Game in mid-July to recharge his batteries after the chase.

For a guy like Jeter, who has thrived on the pressure of the postseason — hitting at a .309 clip with an .850 OPS, 20 home runs and 57 RBIs in 147 career playoff games — the pressure of an individual milestone was an altogether different challenge.

“He put pressure on himself to get it done, probably as much pressure as I’ve ever seen him feel,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. “I mean, this is a guy that’s always been able to relax in the big situations. But usually, those situations are team situations, and this was an individual thing that he had to talk about every day. I think it kind of played on his mind a little.”

Even with the pressure, Jeter maintained his loose laid-back demeanor throughout the chase. Jeter still cracked jokes and kept the clubhouse loose.

But Long agreed with Girardi’s assessment that Jeter has been more relaxed since his milestone hit.

“I would say that helps,” Long said. “It’s water under the bridge now and something that he’s more relieved is over. Knowing Derek — and knowing how much he cares about the New York Yankees and us winning — that being more of a personal achievement, I know he’s glad that’s over, and he doesn’t have to tackle that anymore.”

Whatever the reason, Jeter’s recent success has been important to the Yankees’ success as a whole, especially with Alex Rodriguez missing the first six weeks after the All-Star break after undergoing knee surgery. Over that stretch, Jeter has batted .336, with an .825 OPS, while playing in all but three games, as the Yankees went 23-13 and moved from 1 1/2 games behind the Red Sox to a half-game ahead of Boston.

“It definitely helps, it’s nice to have Derek Jeter swinging the bat the way that he is,” Long said. “It just gives us that much more of an explosive offense. With Alex being out, we scored a lot of runs while he was out, and a big part of that was Jeter stepping up and playing the way he’s capable of playing.”

Jordan Schelling is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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