Spencer: Jeter isn't Jeter, not yet
Yanks captain has to work his way back to full speed
LOS ANGELES - Derek Jeter is a thoroughbred forced by circumstances to act like a trotter. It doesn't come naturally, and it's no fun at all.
"It's tough to make a conscious effort not to do anything stupid," the Yankees' captain said Tuesday night in the wake of a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers in front of a vocal sellout numbering 52,447 at Dodger Stadium. "It's difficult, but I try to look at the big picture and do what I'm told. I don't want to do anything stupid."
Jeter was hitless in four at-bats against Zack Greinke and reliever Ronald Belisario. The Jeter of old would have had an infield hit in his final at-bat against Belisario with two down in the eighth, but he kept it in low gear and allowed shortstop Hanley Ramirez to dive, stab his bullet headed for center field, get up, double-clutch and throw him out.
"Your natural reaction is to run as hard as you can," Jeter said. "But you can't."
In just his second game back from the disabled list -- he homered in his first at-bat in Sunday's 6-5 win against the Rays at Yankee Stadium -- Jeter was not ready to test the recovering right quad that was strained and put him on the shelf July 12, one game after he returned from October surgery on his left ankle.
The day is coming, he volunteered, when he will cut loose. He knows his body better than anyone does.
"I'll just do it," he said. "I won't tell them. I feel weird talking about it."
His manager, Joe Girardi, wasn't too crazy about the topic either.
"We've talked to him about it," Girardi said. "He's got to be smart about it. It's not what we're used to seeing, trying to protect his legs. He understands if he wants to play the rest of the year, he has to do that for a while."
Jeter is all about winning, and his team is 55-51 and trying to stay relevant. It is a struggle to support pitchers such as Andy Pettitte -- excellent across seven innings against the torrid Dodgers -- in the way they've been accustomed.
"I wouldn't say it was a bad night," Jeter said, referring to an offense whose five hits included a solo homer by Lyle Overbay. "Greinke threw well. We got those runs but really didn't threaten too much over the course of the game.
"It would be kind of unfair to him to say we didn't have it. We have guys who are capable of swinging the bats."
Alfonso Soriano came aboard courtesy of the Cubs to bring some life to the offense. He followed his four-hit performance on Sunday, including a homer and walk-off single, with a ringing double leading off the fourth, scoring after a wild pitch and Overbay's infield out.
After that, the sum total of the Yankees' offense was a one-out double by Ichiro Suzuki in the seventh inning.
Girardi, acknowledging that these are not your father's or grandfather's Bronx Bombers, spoke to the team's need to win close games. That means executing, doing all the little things, while supporting good pitching with quality defense.
The dynastic Yankees did all of that quite well back when Jeter was young and didn't have to think about muscles and joints that might not respond to total exertion.
"I've been on teams that have won a lot of close games," Jeter said. "There have been a lot of years when we won close games but didn't blow teams out. You've got to be able to win close games at the end of the year anyway."
With Jeter and Mariano Rivera in uniform, active, Pettitte isn't ready to concede to higher American League East powers. The southpaw talked about the "power of belief," how the Yankees need to carry it with them.
"I feel like this team's got a lot of experience," Pettitte said. "Hopefully, we can will this thing to the playoffs. I expect to go. Hopefully, everybody else here feels the same way.
"I know the older guys -- Jeter and Mariano -- what they're made out of, and we expect to get there. I know they're going to continue to push it. I wouldn't have come back if I didn't think I could continue to push it. Hopefully, we're going to grind it out and get it done."
Soriano made his Yankees debut in 1999 and became the everyday second baseman in 2001. That was an unforgettable season that ended in extreme disappointment in Arizona in Game 7 of the World Series.
Soriano, Jeter's partner in the heart of that defense, had two tremendous seasons before being dealt to the Rangers in 2004 for Alex Rodriguez. Through two years in Texas, one in Washington and then six-plus years with the Cubs, he continued to whip that big bat around.
Soriano, now an outfielder, is back where it started, looking to create a big finish to 2013.
"Mariano, Andy and Jeter, those were my guys," Soriano said. "It was special to have a chance to play second base with him. Now to come back and have a chance again to play with two Hall of Famers and maybe three, with Andy, it's very exciting.
"The only thing at the end of the day is winning. That's the motivation. That's what they teach you in this organization. Jeter makes a big impact on the lineup and in the field. We're happy he's back healthy. He has to stay healthy. He knows what it takes to be a champion."
Right now, however, this great thoroughbred is wearing a harness he can't wait to shed.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.