Derek Jeter's legs pass first test in his first spring training game

Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter grounds out during the Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter grounds out during the fourth inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, in Tampa, Fla. Photo Credit: AP / Charlie Neibergall

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TAMPA, Fla. -- If there is a player drawing more scrutiny than Masahiro Tanaka for his every step thus far, it is Derek Jeter.

More specifically, Jeter's legs.

The shortstop never looked right last spring while running, and for good reason: His left ankle, broken the previous fall, never quite healed, portending a season in which he played only 17 games.

Although it is true that Jeter has been running at full speed during workouts for the last three months, watching him bust it down the line without difficulty Thursday in an 8-2 loss to the Pirates at Steinbrenner Field had the Yankees breathing easier.

"Really good to see," Joe Girardi said. "We hadn't seen that in a while. It's great for us, it's great for him."

Jeter, who played five innings in front of a smaller than expected crowd for a Yankees spring training home opener, went 0-for-2 in his first game since last Sept. 7, grounding out twice. Batting second, he bounced into a 4-6-3 double play in the first inning after Brett Gardner walked. Then he was called out on a bang-bang play at first after grounding to third in the fourth.

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Jeter did not have a ball hit to him, although he did apply the tag on the final out of the fourth when Francisco Cervelli caught Josh Harrison trying to steal.

Jeter has been saying for weeks that his ankle is completely healed and, typically, wasn't overly excited while discussing his running.

"For me, I've done it already, I've run a lot," he said. "You guys might not have seen it, but I've run a lot. It's always good when you start game action. Good to get back in game action. But I'm not concerned about running. It hasn't crossed my mind."

An opposing team's scout noted how hard Jeter ran on both balls.

"Didn't labor much when you consider age and recent health," the scout said.

It is no secret that Jeter's health and ability to stay on the field are considered key to the Yankees' season, his final one before retirement. Even with a healthy Jeter, the infield looks shaky. The Yankees would prefer not to consider what it would look like if Jeter, who will turn 40 in June, suffers through another injury-filled season.

"I think it's important that we're able to run him out there on a pretty consistent basis," Girardi said. "It just gives us more of a continuity to our lineup and to our club."

Righthander David Phelps started Thursday's game and noticed a difference with Jeter on the field, something missing in 2013.

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"It's one of those things you take for granted because he's usually always out there," Phelps said. "But when you're getting a weak fly ball or something, you can hear him back there saying, 'Attaboy, Dave.' He's our leader and it's definitely nice to have him back on the field."

Third baseman Kelly Johnson and second baseman Brian Roberts, both new to the club, each said he hadn't been aware of the depth of Jeter's sense of humor. But everyone knows his importance to the club has been a given since 1996.

"I think we all know what he's capable of doing, so you're talking about getting a premier player in the game when he's healthy," Roberts said. "It's hard to replace a guy like that. I think everybody for a lot of reasons is hoping that's who you get this year."

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