Jeet hopes latest leg issue is minor

I saw something Thursday that I never saw before nor ever expected to see – Derek Jeter not running hard to first base. Jeter is on my list of players I have covered over the years who always – always – gave it their all running down the line, right up there with Pete Rose, Dave Winfield and Mookie Wilson.

So when I saw Jeet jogging the final third of the way to first base in the sixth inning I figured something was up. When Yankees manager Joe Girardi sent Brett Gardner up as a pinch hitter for Jeter in the eighth, my suspicions were confirmed. After the game, Suzyn Waldman of WCBS Radio and Meredith Marakovits of the YES Network were informed that Jeter would be unavailable for an on-field, postgame interview.

The warm and fuzzy feeling brought on by Jeter’s return to the Bronx Thursday turned gloomy when it was learned that in his first game back with the Yankees in 2013 Jeter felt tightness in his right quadriceps. Actually, the muscle tightened up slightly in his previous at-bat when he also tried to beat out a ground ball.

The Captain did that all game. He was not at shortstop but as the designated hitter as Girardi decided to ease Jeter back into the mix. DJ beat out an infield single in his first at-bat to the absolute delight of the Yankee Stadium crowd of 40,381 and grounded out his other three times up. On the last one, the quad wouldn’t allow him to go full throttle, which is as rare a sight as there can be in the major leagues.

Of course, Jeter considered the situation minor and fully expects to be back in the lineup Friday night against the Twins.

“It’s not frustrating yet,” he said. “We’ll see what the tests say. I hope it’s not a big deal.”

We have been down the road with Jeter before on these matters. He played much of the 2012 postseason on a weak left ankle that eventually gave way and shattered to knock him out of the American League Championship Series against the Tigers. While on the rehabilitation trail, the ankle broke in another spot pushing his recovery back toward the All-Star break, which is next week.

Jeter is back in pinstripes earlier than planned although later than he wanted. He could have done without the at-bats in the minors but acknowledged, “I understand you have to play games, but I felt that I was ready.”

The original plan was for Jeter to come back to the Yankees and play Friday night after another game as a DH for Triple A Scranton. Jeter was surprised when he returned a call from general manager Brian Cashman telling him to come to New York for Thursday’s game.

Leg injuries to Gardner and Travis Hafner Wednesday night had left the Yankees short. Jeter reached his Manhattan apartment at around 2:30 a.m., got to sleep at around 4, woke up at 6:30 and could not get back to sleep so he decided to get up and go to the Stadium early.

“No disrespect to rehab assignments, but this is Yankee Stadium,” Jeter said. “There’s a huge difference. For me, it was almost like Opening Day. The fans gave me a nice ovation.”

No one in the Stadium could hear the tape of the late Bob Sheppard announcing Jeter as he strode to the plate in the first inning because of the crowd’s reaction. The plate appearance allowed Jeter to tie teammate Mariano Rivera for the most seasons played (19) with the Yankees.

“I thought about that first at-bat ever since I got hurt,” Jeter said, “and I knew I was going to swing at the first pitch.”

Which he did; he hit a topper down the third base line and beat it out for his first hit of the year. He showed no leg problems running to third on a single by Robinson Cano and had a nice trot to the plate on Vernon Wells’ scoring fly ball. On that other trot in the sixth, Jeet was credited with a run batted in as Luis Cruz scored from third base. It was a nice beginning for Jeter, who got his first hit, first run and first RBI out of the way all in the same game.

Perhaps it was just an illusion, but all the Yankees seemed to have more spring in their step with the Captain back. They overcame deficits of 3-0 and 4-1 to take an 8-4 decision and earn a split of the four-game set with the Royals, which is meaningful after having lost the first two games. Three straight two-out singles by Lyle Overbay, Zoilo Almonte and Eduardo Nunez produced four runs in the fifth as the Yankees took control of the game.

The winning decision went to Andy Petttitte (6-5), who passed Bob Gibson on the all-time list of pitching victories with 252. It was not vintage Pettitte, who made an error on a bunt play and had his outfielders working overtime running down long drives. The way the offense has struggled so much of the season, three-run deficits can seem enormous to the Yankees, but Pettitte and the bullpen held KC scoreless after the second inning and waited for the hitters to take their cue from Jeter.

Now it is a matter of waiting for the test results to determine the severity of Jeter’s condition. At 39, the healing process can have more delays, which Jeter understands if reluctantly.

“Age doesn’t creep into my mind when I’m playing,” he said. “Maybe in the morning. . .”

So we wait for Friday morning and hope Thursday wasn’t too good to be true.

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