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Posted: Tuesday August 25, 2009 12:08PM; Updated: Wednesday August 26, 2009 7:25AM
Tom Verducci Tom Verducci >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Thoughts and observations on the two beasts of the AL East

Story Highlights

Derek Jeter is leading a freakishly productive group of older Yankees

Why A.J. Burnett could be the biggest key for New York in the postseason

One explanation for Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett's recent struggles

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Derek Jeter
At 35, Derek Jeter is in the midst of one of the finest all-around seasons of his career.
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Thoughts and observations on the Yankees and Red Sox after watching New York salt away the division last weekend by winning the series at Fenway Park ...

• One of the more impressive aspects of New York's season is that none of its many older key players have shown any decline in production or health, a remarkable, if not freakish, occurrence in today's game. Jorge Posada, 37, Johnny Damon, 35, Hideki Matsui, 35, and Derek Jeter, 35, all have better OPS marks this year than last. (Alex Rodriguez, 35, has only a slight decline). Andy Pettitte, 37, and Mariano Rivera, 39, are almost as good as ever. Contrast that to the breakdowns or declines in Boston of Tim Wakefield, 42, John Smoltz, 42, Jason Varitek, 37, Mike Lowell, 35, David Ortiz, 33, J.D. Drew, 33, and Julio Lugo, 33.

Perhaps least surprisingly, Jeter, whose body and game have changed almost not at all over the years, is having a prime Jeter season, including a .332 batting average.

"He's always been good at getting those [bloop] hits here and there," hitting coach Kevin Long said, "but this is a hard .330. It seems everything he has hit has been hit hard. All year long. And that's because he's swinging at a lot of strikes. Everything he's swinging at is a good pitch. To me, it's been about his strike zone recognition.

"He's been much better at deciding which pitches to swing at. He's more disciplined than I've ever seen him at waiting for pitches to be in the zone. And when you wait for good pitches to hit, you're going to hit better."

Jeter is striking out at a career-low rate. He said his improved plate discipline is due more to consistent good health than to a change in his approach.

"If you feel good, everything else takes care of itself," Jeter said, "and you're not swinging at bad pitches. That's all it's about. I've been feeling good and when that happens you swing at better pitches."

Asked if the World Baseball Classic caused him to ramp up his offseason workouts, Jeter said, "No. The only thing I did differently was maybe start throwing a little earlier."

Jeter is having a historic season, almost a once-in-a-century kind of season given his age and his position. Only one shortstop Jeter's age or older ever has hit better than .330: that would happen to be Honus Wagner, way back in 1909 (.339) and 1911 (.334).

Said Long of Jeter, "I don't look at him as an older player. By the way he is swinging the bat, fielding, running ... You don't look at him as an older player."

When told of being in the company of Wagner, Jeter shrugged and said simply, "Season's not over yet."

"He's the best player I've ever played with," Pettitte said. "Game on the line, if I can pick anyone I ever played with, he's the guy I would want up in that situation. And I've played with some great clutch players. No slight to guys like Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, Lance Berkman, but Derek is the one guy I want most to be up there in that situation."

• The Angels are an impressive team, but the Yankees are the clear favorite to represent the AL in the World Series. But as one league executive noted, that could change quickly "if they get behind in the fourth inning of [ALDS] Game 1." Pressure is part of what comes with New York's tradition and payroll, which is why A.J. Burnett looms as a critical part of a postseason run by the Yankees.

Say the Yankees happen to lose an ALDS Game 1. Do you want the playoff round riding on the next game on a guy making his first postseason start, a guy who could become the first Yankees pitcher since Phil Niekro in 1985 to walk 100 batters and the first Yankees pitcher since Joe Bush in 1924 to lead the league in walks and wild pitches? Well, yes, if Burnett has his A-quality stuff. But then you see him throw a clunker Saturday and still wonder about his focus and pitching savvy. Why, for instance, was he worried about Dustin Pedroia at second base with two outs in the second inning and Kevin Youkilis batting? Youkilis hit the next pitch for a game-breaking homer.

Josh Beckett has put up two straight horrid outings: 18 hits, 15 runs and eight homers in 13 1/2 innings. But the Red Sox insist the problem is mechanical, not physical. Beckett has generated no downward plane on his pitches, at least not until the last couple of innings of his pasting Sunday. Without creating angles with his pitches, Beckett has been leaving the ball up. The career-high five homers he gave up Sunday all came on pitches left up in the zone.

Tim Wakefield returns to the Boston rotation Wednesday. Scouts insist his knuckleball has been as nasty as ever in his rehabilitation starts, but he can barely get off the mound because of his back trouble. Expect the White Sox to test him with bunts.

Victor Martinez will have to catch Wakefield because Varitek simply doesn't catch the knuckleball. But the Red Sox have to think about giving Martinez more starts behind the plate, anyway. Varitek is wilting. Check out the month-by-month OPS of Varitek and you'll very easily see a pattern here: .881, .824, .750, .736, .501.

• The Yankees were amazed that Brad Penny kept challenging them with a steady diet of fastballs, which they routinely hammered. "Fine by us," one of them said after seeing fastballs on about 70 percent of his pitches Friday. Penny has good velocity on his fastball, but he has little movement on it, which means he gets few ground balls and hitters square it up. Plus, he doesn't have enough feel for his secondary pitches to be an effective starter. Penny has devolved into an insurance policy against Wakefield's back and Junichi Tazawa's expected lack of stamina for a guy who was pitching in the Japanese Industrial League last year.

• Until New York's win Sunday, the Yankees and Red Sox had played 140 times since 2003, postseason included. Each team had won 70 times. They don't play at Fenway Park again this year -- unless they meet again in the ALCS.

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