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Healthy Jeter happy with routine Grapefruit games

Yankees captain needs spring repetitions to near vintage form in final season

TAMPA, Fla. -- What a nothing game.

And afterward, as he was dressing and heading out of the Yankees' clubhouse, you could almost hear Derek Jeter thinking how gladly he'd take another dozen just like it, as long as there are also a few memorable ones this spring. Ideally, those -- the kind with two or three hits and a spectacular fielding play or two -- would come in late March.

This wasn't one of those, and it was OK with everybody just to see Jeter put on his No. 2 uniform Thursday and play five innings at George M. Steinbrenner Field. This was the unofficial start of Jeter's farewell tour, and all you really need to know is he felt great both when the day began and when it ended.

Jeter might have said that sometime last spring, but he would have been lying. He always had doubts about coming back too soon from the surgery that followed his ghastly ankle injury in the 2012 American League Championship Series, and those doubts never left him during an injury plagued year in which he played 17 games across three stints.

But if Jeter has questions now, they're not about his health. He took care of those with an offseason that he says was "a little different for me," one in which he pushed himself harder and earlier than he had with the routine that carried him to 3,316 regular-season hits.

Jeter didn't think twice when he had to bust it out of the batter's box on a fourth-inning ground ball that was fielded by Pittsburgh third baseman Josh Harrison. He broke quick and ran hard, and that's why Joe Girardi had a smile on his face after the 8-2 loss to the Pirates.

"That's a great sign for us and a great sign for him,'' Girardi said.

First basemen have claimed Jeter makes a one-of-a-kind sound as he runs down the first-base line, working like a racehorse in the home stretch to try to beat the throw. This was one of those plays, and even though Jeter was called out by umpire Tom Hallion, the play was so close that Girardi said he would have appealed it had the new replay format been in use.

Jeter wasn't exactly broken up about not getting the call. His summation after an 0-for-2 day at the plate -- he grounded into a double play at the end of an eight-pitch at-bat against Charlie Morton in the first inning -- and a quiet day in the field could have been spoken by any of 500 or so Major League veterans getting ready for the season in Florida or Arizona.

Jeter said his afternoon was exactly what should have been expected. He didn't sound as concerned about this being the beginning of the end as he did about how long it has been since he felt this good, or on how much work still lies ahead to knock off the rust that built up while he was working to get healthy again.

"I feel like I haven't played a game in a couple of years,'' Jeter said.

Jeter turns 40 in June. Few big league shortstops have ever turned in good seasons at that age, and it can't help that his mobility -- long questioned when compared to younger shortstops -- would figure to be limited by the run of injuries that began when he collapsed trying to make a play two years ago. But Jeter is as fit as he can be, and that knowledge will carry him a long way in his comeback, which in turn will go a long way toward determining if the Yankees can make it back to the playoffs.

If Jeter looked out of place Thursday, it was because he was surrounded in the infield by third baseman Kelly Johnson, second baseman Brian Roberts and first baseman Russ Canzler, as opposed to the usual suspects. Mark Teixeira will be at first when Opening Day arrives, but the Yanks have serious issues where they used to have Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano.

The White Sox had a scout in attendance Thursday, and in a few weeks, they might be willing to move Gordon Beckham or Alexei Ramirez in a deal for catcher Francisco Cervelli. Or the Yankees could grab Rickie Weeks from the Brewers. Lots of things could happen. But you need maximum doses of imagination to picture a 90-win Yanks team that doesn't have Jeter on it.

"I think it's important we're able to run him out there as much as we can, and that he is Derek,'' Girardi said.

The year Jeter turned 38, he hit .316 and played 158 games. Take 20 points off that average, give backup Brendan Ryan 20 or even 30 of those games, and Jeter's final season in pinstripes would be a success, even if Jeter isn't going to judge it as one if it doesn't include a dose of October magic.

There's no plan to take it easy on Jeter this spring. He could play more than 14 games, close to his average from 2008-12, and pile up more than 40 at-bats. Jeter knows he needs repetitions to gain his sharpness, and he's hungry to get that game action.

As for October?

Girardi says he's optimistic, because general manager Brian Cashman has added "power, speed [and] guys who grind out at-bats'' -- in other words, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Jacoby Ellsbury -- and an impact arm in Masahiro Tanaka.

"The other thing that gives me optimism,'' said Girardi, knocking his knuckles on his desk, "is we're healthy.''

Everything starts with a healthy Jeter. And at this early milepost, both the Yankees and their captain have two legs to stand on.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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