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MLB Playoff Race: Why Derek Jeter Will Lead New York Yankees to AL Pennant

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MLB Playoff Race: Why Derek Jeter Will Lead New York Yankees to AL Pennant
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

For 84 days, the New York Yankees sat atop the AL East division standings alone. For nearly three months, the Bronx Bombers enjoyed a comfortable cushion which grew as large as 10 games.

And then it vanished. 

The team's longest streak atop the standings since 2004 was snapped on Tuesday evening, when the Baltimore Orioles moved into a tie for first place following a 12-0 thumping of the Blue Jays. A combination of untimely injuries, subpar starting pitching and the complete absence of clutch hitting left Yankee fans in utter disarray.

It's time to hit the panic button in the Bronx.

A team meeting was held the following day to address the club's recent struggles. Sure enough, it paid off. 

The Yankees reclaimed sole possession of the division lead Wednesday after a wacky play in the seventh inning plated two runs for New York on their way to a 6-4 victory over the Rays.

Right at the center of the tie-breaking play was none other than the Yankee captain. 

It wasn't the prototypical Derek Jeter slap to right field, but it did the job. Right now, the Yankees are going to take wins any way they can get them. 

The veteran shortstop is enjoying a remarkable year at age 38. After hitting below .300 for consecutive seasons for the first time in his career, Jeter leads Major League Baseball in hits (182) entering the final three weeks of play. 

How many more years will Jeter bat in the upper-third of the order?

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His resurgence comes after critics called for the captain to be moved down in the order. Fans of the Yankees insisted he play in the outfield. 

But it doesn't come as a surprise. 

Derek Jeter has been the face of the Yankee organization for more than a decade. He represents everything that an owner or manager can ask for in a leader.

There isn't a guy in baseball who would be better suited to turn around a struggling squad in September. 

His demeanor in postgame interviews following New York's loss Tuesday night didn't reveal one ounce of anxiety. It was as though he had no doubt about his club’s playoff chances.

In fact, Jeter's poise was more indicative of a team that just erased a 10-game lead than of one that surrendered it. 

Because Derek Jeter has been here before.

He understands the chaos and turmoil that come with a 162-game schedule. More importantly, he knows what it takes to be on top when that rigorous season comes to an end.

Since his first full year in the majors (1996), Jeter’s Yankees have finished first in the AL East in 12 of those 16 seasons. Only once in his career has he failed to play in the postseason.

I don’t think he’s ready to let that number double.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

With 26 regular-season games remaining, New York’s one-game lead in the AL East is in serious jeopardy. 14 of those games will be played on the road, and all but six are against divisional opponents.

The action kicks off tonight in Baltimore, where the Yankees will play perhaps the four most important games of the year against the Orioles. Even with a nagging leg injury, there is no way Jeter’s name will be left off the lineup card.

The Yankee captain went 3-for-4 last night in the team’s most important game to-date this season. While he can’t be expected to reach base three times an evening, it will be Jeter’s presence in the clubhouse that makes the difference.

Neither the Orioles nor the Rays have a player even remotely resembling the captain. Heck, the argument could be made that Jeter has more playoff experience than the two rosters combined.

The Yankees will have to make to the playoffs first; the return of veterans Mark Teixeira and Andy Pettitte in the coming weeks should make the difference—at least on the baseball diamond.

New York will need to overcome their struggles with late-inning hitting if they are to have a chance at World Series title No. 28. What better man to help than the guy they call “Captain Clutch”?

“Mr. November” has earned a reputation as one of the greatest clutch hitters of all time. With the season on the line, there isn’t a player in the game I would rather have at the plate.

Not even Mike Trout.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

In baseball, it isn’t always the team with the best record that makes it to the World Series. Rather, it is typically the team playing the best baseball down the stretch that makes a run in October.

With proven veterans at nearly every position, the Yankees must be the favorite to finish atop the division by the conclusion of Game 162. The return of key pieces like Pettitte and Teixeira will give New York the boost they need to make a late-season run.

Just like the Yankees, every other team in the AL has faltered at times over the course of the year. At this point, it is tough to distinguish anyone as a clear favorite.

With playoff-tested pitchers like C.C. Sabathia and Andy Pettitte leading the rotation—and Hiroki Kuroda to back them up—a five or seven game series is theirs for the taking.

New York’s bullpen has been second to none, and their pure power prevents them from facing an insurmountable deficit at any point in the game.

Their recent track record makes my prediction seem unlikely to say the least. But don’t be surprised if the Yankees are the last American League team standing come November.  

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