David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Derek Jeter's left foot landed with a hard thud, and when the shortstop came up limping afterward, for a moment, you could almost hear the Yankees' season also come crashing down Wednesday night at Fenway Park.
Jeter was just being Jeter -- hustling to beat out a double-play grounder so Chris Dickerson could score one more run in that eighth inning. To get the Yankees that much closer to a win they desperately needed, and one they would earn anyway, hanging on to a 5-4 victory over the Red Sox.
As a result, Jeter, who re-aggravated a bone bruise in his left ankle, wound up as more collateral damage in this already exhausting AL East race. The Orioles, by the way, also won -- on a walk-off homer by Nate McLouth -- to stay tied with the Yankees atop the division.
Jeter wanted to stay in the game. He held his glove, standing at shortstop, while he talked with Joe Girardi and trainer Steve Donohue. But Jeter lost the argument. Girardi thought it better to live to fight another day. Jeter insists that day will be Thursday night in the series finale against the Red Sox.
"I don't talk about injuries," Jeter said afterward. "You either play or you don't. I'm playing, so it's not an issue."
That had to be a relief to the Yankees, who already had lost Mark Teixeira -- possibly for the season -- five days earlier on the double-play grounder that ended a loss to the Orioles at Camden Yards. Teixeira, in his first game rushing back from a calf strain, reinjured himself diving for first base.
He was safe on a play that should have extended the game, not hand it to the Orioles. And for Teixeira to risk everything on that one headfirst dive, knowing what might happen to his leg by pushing more than he should, was yet another example of what it's going to take to win this division.
"It's playoff baseball," Girardi said. "You're playing in the playoffs right now."
No one needs to tell that to Jeter. The Yankees' captain owns five World Series rings and is a lock Hall of Famer, and yet to him, flipping the pages of a calendar doesn't change how he approaches every out of every inning. If one more run is going to get the Yankees a one more inch closer to the postseason, and a shot at a 28th World Series, then Jeter will takes his chances.
He's been coping with the bone bruise in his left ankle for weeks, according to Girardi, and tweaked it again during the Rays series in St. Pete earlier this month. Watching him closely, it's not difficult to see that Jeter has been protective lately of the ankle, running awkwardly at times, just short of limping.
On Wednesday night, Jeter slapped a grounder toward the right side of the infield -- a routine double-play ball -- but sprinted down the line as if the AL East title would be decided. On his final lunge for the bag, Jeter winced in pain, then limped noticeably before bending over to take off his shin guard. Instantly, Girardi knew what was wrong.
The Yankees have withstood a number of injuries this season. They still had enough left to build a 10-game lead in the division on July 18 and then enough to lose it less than two months later.
Where the Yankees go from here is yet to be determined. Girardi said he expects Jeter to play Thursday night because, well, he's Jeter. That's enough for Girardi, and if the Yankees intend on surviving this September, they must have Jeter -- for the same reason they nearly lost him Wednesday night.
"It doesn't temper the win because we need to win," Girardi said. "But I think if he was out for a while, I'd be pretty concerned."
Jeter, trying to put Girardi's mind at ease, claimed it was "not a big deal." The shortstop couldn't be more wrong.