Jeter passes milestone on road back to the Bronx
Captain starts at shortstop, plays five frames with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre
MOOSIC, Pa. -- A ground ball bounced toward the left side of second base with two outs in the top of the fifth inning, and Derek Jeter moved to his left -- one step, maybe two -- handled the ball cleanly, and made the four-foot flip to the second baseman to complete his workday.
Later, Jeter smiled and suggested that his lone chance Saturday night should be characterized as something far more challenging.
"Jeter darts to his left, gloves it and flips. ... Got 'em," he said.
But he acknowledged, "It was right to me. ... I didn't do much."
No one argued with that second assessment. He chuckled at the memory of what he called a "mini-standing ovation," prompted by his groundout in the fourth inning, and said he had seen pitches -- nine, to be exact -- which was the objective of his return to competitive baseball with the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.
Now, 87 games into a big league season without their Captain, the Yankees know no more about Jeter's readiness to play than they did before his first five rehab innings. His play -- a walk, a lineout, a groundout, and the routine ball in the field -- did little other than prolong the uncertainty that still engulfs him.
He can probably play -- he says he can, of course; perhaps not every inning of every game, but enough to regain his role as the everyday shortstop. But now that he is 10 days beyond his 39th birthday and nine months removed from the first of two left ankle fractures, can he return to being the reliable and productive player who has graced the team's infield almost every day for 17 seasons?
He certainly couldn't know after seeing a handful of pitches from former Yankee Raul Valdes on Saturday, nor could the Yankees. They can be pleased that Jeter is closer to his return than he had been.
And his work as the RailRiders' designated hitter Sunday afternoon likely won't be indicative of anything significant, either.
Jeter left PNC Field on Saturday night unsure of what Monday would bring and when he would be playing again in the Bronx.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi seemed to imply Friday that he would return sooner rather than later, basing their vague prognosis on the opinions of doctors and Jeter himself.
"If they were basing it on what I told them," Jeter said before the game. "I'd be playing today."
He'd had enough at-bats in simulated games -- about 50 -- at the Yankees' complex in Tampa, Fla.
"I've done everything I've needed to do," he said.
But the Yankees are conditioned to doubt Jeter's self-diagnosis. They know he'll try to play regardless of pain. They also recognize how much pain he must have endured in halting his return in April after the second fracture -- in a different area -- was detected.
"You can't fake-out a CT scan," Jeter said.
No question that when the Yankees' doctors spoke with Jeter before he made the trip to PNC Field for his big day in a small town, they urged him to take it easy. Don't over-do. As strong and energized as Jeter may have felt, he didn't need to prove his readiness to return to the big league game. Just get re-acclimated to the game, they told him, and gradually get back into the flow.
No problem. When he lined out in the third, he took four un-rushed strides toward first before returning to the dugout, and in his fourth-inning groundout, he made the 90-foot dash without incident. No one had expected anything to happen. The injuries were not the sort that can be aggravated.
He played his position behind right-handed pitcher Michael Pineda, who was making his third rehab start, the first at Triple-A. Pineda missed all of last season after the Yankees acquired him from the Mariners following the 2011 season, after which he suffered a tear of his right labrum. He gave up two runs on two walks and two hits in the first inning and none in the next four. He surrendered two more hits, no additional walks and finished with seven strikeouts and 78 pitches.
But the evening was Jeter's, even if the applause that met his introductions and appearances was mostly perfunctory. The stands were filled -- 10,000 was the announced attendance -- and the RailRaiders said the game had sold out Friday within 40 minutes of the announcement that No. 2 would play in the park he had visited once when he played in a Triple-A All-Star Game.
A few Mickey Mantle tape-measure jobs from PNC Field, Kid Rock and also Kool and the Gang staged a concert Saturday night. Kid Rock might be enough to energize the locale citizenry on a normal summer Saturday night. But Jeter made it a Saturday Night Special for some folks. Dozens wore No. 2 Yankees jerseys. But there were three Mantle 7s, a few 4's for Lou Gehrig, at last two 3's from the Babe, two 24's for Robinson Cano, a Knicks' 33 for Patrick Ewing and a requisite 6 for LeBron.
For this night, at least, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders were Ultra Kool and the Gang. Jeter's presence made this Triple-A engagement -- the Lehigh Valley IronPigs vs. the RailRiders -- an event, so much so that an employee at a nearby hotel sold her tickets to the concert for a profit to cover the cost of tickets to Jeter's appearance. She admitted to never having set foot in the Bronx and called the opportunity to see the Captain in person "a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Despite what he identified as "stiffness and soreness all over my body," Jeter was unconcerned about re-injuring the ankle, saying "I've done more now" to rehab the joint and the area around it than he had between the original fracture and Spring Training. The first break had fully healed before the second occurred, according to Jeter.
He has kept tabs on the Yankees whenever possible. He had returned to Yankee Stadium last month. But he was unable to watch his team on television when he was in Tampa, where he has a home. He never bought the cable package that included Yankees telecasts.
"I wasn't planning on staying that long to make [subscribing] worthwhile," he said.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.