NEW YORK -- Years from now, there won't be any notations in the record books to indicate just how much pain Derek Jeter played through as he passed Willie Mays on his way to 10th place on the all-time hits list. But those who were around this weekend ought to make a mental note to remember it. What turned out to be Saturday's game-winning single in a critical fifth-inning at bat was smacked on what seemed like a defensive swing against Rays right-hander James Shields with the count full. Nevertheless, Jeter punched the ball into center field, scoring Ichiro Suzuki from second. "You're talking about a great at-bat," manager Joe Girardi said after his Yankees held off the Rays, 5-3, for a crucial win at Yankee Stadium. "You're talking about a really good pitcher. Jetes had a long at-bat, allowing Ichiro to steal [second]. That's the thing about Derek: He's not going to try to do too much in that situation, and that's why he's successful so often."
Jeter has a bone bruise on his left ankle that has restricted him to a role as designated hitter in this three-game series. He has 3,286 hits, three ahead of Mays, who -- like Jeter -- played through numerous injuries and much fatigue to amass his numbers. Mays also had 660 homers, fourth on the all-time list and 13 ahead of Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who will have to wait until next season to try to catch Mays. It seems like almost every day now that either A-Rod, Jeter or both are moving ahead of some great player on an all-time list. With two hits on Saturday, Rodriguez has 2,886, which moves him past Zack Wheat into sole possession of 37th place. Career hit No. 3,000 is a milestone A-Rod could achieve at some point next season. "That's the last thing on any of our minds," A-Rod said about the personal accolades. "We're really focused on leading this team and collecting as many victories as we can. I'm sure there will come a point when we can look back and appreciate these moments." Be that as it may, ahead of Jeter on the hits list are some pretty significant names. Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial are the top four. Jeter is now 970 behind Rose, the all-time leader with 4,256. "Every person you pass at this point is special," Jeter said. Mays, of course, is an icon on both coasts, having begun his 22-year career in New York with the Giants, playing the bulk of his years in San Francisco and then concluding his career back in the Big Apple with the Mets. Jeter has met Mays on several occasions, recalling one encounter when the 2007 All-Star Game was played at AT&T Park in San Francisco. "I know him a little bit -- not well," Jeter said. "He's always been real nice to me, and I always appreciated that. I had an opportunity along with [Ken Griffey] Jr. to interview him at an All-Star Game in San Francisco. Whenever you admire someone, it's always kind of awkward sitting there, talking to him on camera for the first time. It was a fun experience, but I've seen him throughout the years and he's always been really nice to me." Mays, now 81, returned the compliment. "He is a fine kid -- he's been a fine man for a long time. Good for baseball," Mays told the New York Daily News, recalling that he gave the 38-year-old Jeter a No. 24 jersey during their 2007 chat at the All-Star Game. "And when they had the World [Baseball Classic], he was in Phoenix and I went down to say hello. He was very gracious to come out and take pictures with the people that I brought there." Unlike the flamboyant Mays, who was known to make stylish basket catches in center field and run out from under his cap, Jeter has played his 18 seasons in the Bronx without much of a flourish. In the end, he's passed all of the Yankees greats in total hits, but when his career is over, he won't have the most home runs, World Series rings or consecutive games played for the Yankees. Babe Ruth hit 659 of his 714 homers in New York, Yogi Berra won the World Series 10 times and played in 14 Fall Classics and Lou Gehrig went out to roam first base 2,131 games in a row. But Jeter will have made a significant impact in his own era. How good is Jeter? "As good as I've seen in my lifetime -- day in and day out, understanding situations, playing the game, letting the game come to him," Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said this week when asked about Jeter during an interview on ESPN Radio. "All of those adages and those things that you talk about that apply to so many players, they all apply to him, because he gets it. I've never seen anything like it. He plays the game the way you want every person on your team to play it. He plays it not only hard, efficiently and professionally, but he plays it with a high degree of talent." And now he's playing hurt at the time of year he's needed most and declining to talk about it, although others will. "He's banged up, but he's playing through it," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said with some admiration. "We're going to have to help him manage it to the degree that we can." Alas, there will be no footnote in the record books to say any of that happened.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.