David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The most eagerly awaited event Thursday afternoon in the Yankees' clubhouse was not the outcome of the Orioles-Rays game. It had to do with the posting of the lineup card, and yes, Derek Jeter was back in the leadoff spot, just as he promised he would be the previous night.
The only concession made to the bone bruise inside Jeter's left ankle, the lingering injury that knocked him from Wednesday's game, was Joe Girardi relegating Jeter to DH for the Fenway Park finale, which the Yankees won, 2-0, to stay tied with the O's atop the division.
Eduardo Nuñez took over at shortstop for the night. But it wasn't long before Jeter showed why it was so important to have him in the lineup rather than nursing an ankle that is clearly bothering him.
After coming up empty in his first three at-bats, Jeter seized the moment in the seventh with a soft RBI single. With one out and the count 3-and-2, Jeter fought off a 94-mph fastball on his hands for a blooper that dropped in.
It also extended his hitting streak to nine games and Jeter is batting .429 (18-for-42) during that stretch. "He was playing on probably one ankle tonight -- maybe one and a quarter," Girardi said. "That's who he is. He's a fighter and he finds a way."
Still protective of the ankle, he ran to first in the cautious manner he's adopted lately. After crossing the base, he slapped his hands together in customary fashion, settling into a tie for 10th place on the all-time hit list (3,283) with Willie Mays.
You don't catch the Say Hey Kid by sitting out when others might, and Jeter is no stranger to pain. He laughed when it was suggested September is the worst month as far as the physical "wear and tear" of a long season.
"Know how long I've been playing?" Jeter said. "I've had a lot of things accumulating. Everyone's got something that doesn't feel great. But you either play or you don't. And if you play, why talk about it?"
Jeter, as expected, treated the Yankees' most recent health scare as if it were business as usual. Move along, nothing to see here, another day, another game. But Jeter spent every last minute leading up to batting practice in the trainer's room, aside from the seven he playfully volleyed with reporters about the condition of the ankle in question.
"This is nothing new, really," Jeter said. "I don't just take days off. I don't like to have days off. I don't care what happens."
Jeter is stubborn that way. Always has been. That doesn't mean, of course, he isn't hurting. After suiting up, Jeter made sure to hold on to the railing as he gingerly stepped down the steep clubhouse staircase en route to the dugout.
Jeter, at age 38, is experiencing a career renaissance, and the Yankees couldn't have picked a better time for their captain to turn back the clock.
"There's still concern there," Girardi said after last night's win. "And you can see -- it hurts. But we'll see what we got [Friday night].''
As durable as Jeter has been through the years, Wednesday was a reminder that he's more at risk now than at any other time in recent memory. And never more crucial to the team's survival. "I don't like to sit out," he said. "I don't think it has anything to do with the time of year."
But probably a lot to do with the Orioles, even if Jeter won't admit it.