Eduardo Nuñez could be the key to keeping Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez healthy

Eduardo Nunez of the Yankees bats during the

Eduardo Nunez of the Yankees bats during the sixth inning against the Baltimore Orioles during a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. (July 6, 2013) (Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke)

Regarding the 42,678 fans at Yankee Stadium Saturday, we'll say this much with certainty: Nobody made a special trip to this Yankees-Orioles game because they were anticipating Eduardo Nuñez's return from the disabled list.

Things will be a lot different when Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter play their first games back in the Bronx, presumably within a few weeks.

A-Rod and Jeter are big-name draws, and that's why the crowds always follow them. But there will be an added sense of intrigue to their comebacks because they mean so much to the fate of this Yankees season . . . yet no one has any idea what to expect from them.

Both have missed so much time, are well on their way to 40 and are coming off significant injuries and rehabs.

That's why Nuñez, despite the lack of fanfare surrounding his return Saturday, represents such an important and perhaps somewhat overlooked cog in the Yankees' season.

In order for the Yankees to maximize the productivity of Rodriguez and Jeter during the final two months of the regular season, Nuñez finally must live up to the billing that the Yankees have been spreading for years, that he's got the potential to be a productive everyday major-league player.

The dream scenario for the Yankees for August and September features Nuñez playing on the left side of the infield several days a week. By spelling Rodriguez and Jeter at both positions, he could give each aging player the opportunity for some days off and other days as the designated hitter.

But in order for that plan to work, Rodriguez and Jeter have to come back healthy and stay healthy (no sure thing) and Nuñez has to finally prove he's the player the Yankees have long envisioned him becoming (also no sure thing).

"He has a lot of tools," manager Joe Girardi said. "So for him, it's keeping him healthy and getting him out there."

The Yankees wasted no time getting Nuñez back on the field, surprising him Friday with a late-night call to Trenton to tell him to get to New York and be ready to play. Pronto.

By then, the Yankees had decided they were putting righthander David Phelps on the disabled list and had room for an extra player, so they figured it was time to end Nuñez's rehab from an oblique injury (after only 16 at-bats in the minors) and see what he does with an opportunity.

The early returns were positive. Nuñez went 2-for-3 with two RBIs and a run scored to help the Yankees beat the Orioles, 5-4, for their sixth straight victory. His one-out single up the middle in the sixth inning drove in what proved to be the winning run.

There's nothing left for Nuñez to accomplish in the minors. The reps he needs most are not about proving he's healthy. Instead, he has to show he's ready to be the guy they can count on to keep Jeter and Rodriguez on the field and productive for as long as possible.

Nuñez said he isn't thinking about that role yet, by design.

The 26-year-old played only shortstop in his brief stay in the minors and said Saturday that he's taking grounders only at shortstop until the Yankees tell him otherwise. That's his position while Jeter gets in his reps in the minors and proves his ankle is ready for the speed of the majors.

Once that happens, though, the Yankees can only hope Nuñez has used this opportunity to live up to the potential they have long believed his game holds.

"He brings another element with that speed, and he has the ability to swing the bat well and play defense," Girardi said, "and that's what he did today."

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