TAMPA, Fla. -- The likelihood that Eduardo Nunez will be the first Yankee not named Derek Jeter to start at shortstop on Opening Day since 2001 -- quick, who started that season opener? -- rose greatly with the news that Jeter had suffered a setback in his rehab from an ankle injury and will be shut down for a couple of days at least.
But before you panic or start praying for the Yankees to send out a call to lure Andy Stankiewicz out of retirement, listen to what Nunez has to say about his ability to hold down the position until Jeter returns.
"I feel great," Nunez said after the Yankees' 4-0 victory over the Red Sox on Wednesday at The Boss. "I feel so comfortable, confident in myself. I think I've fixed a lot of my defense this year."
True, Nunez made an error Wednesday in the fourth inning, but it was on a tough hop, and the scoring wasn't being done by an actual official scorer but by a Yankees PR assistant. Anyway, Nunez came back to turn a double play on the very next pitch. The real difference, he said, has been in his throwing, which has improved after a season spent in the minors plus some winter ball, during which the assignment was to learn to throw with the same motion and same arm slot every time.
"It's shorter than before," Nunez said. "They made me work on it all spring. That's why I'm excited. I don't throw too many balls in the stands anymore."
Nunez can laugh at himself now, but he remembers when the joke was on him.
"It's hard when you know you can do better than that, and you're not doing it," he said. "I heard a lot of things from the stands. People blame you, tell you, 'You suck. You can't do this.' That's hard, but everything that I hear makes me stronger. I tell myself, I work hard and I will prove them wrong. The people that talked about me bad, they're wrong. I don't put my head down."
That bit of advice came from Jeter himself, who counseled the 25-year-old Nunez to block out the negative comments and focus only on his game. "He's so confident in himself all the time," Nunez said, "and he told me to be confident, too."
Wednesday, both GM Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi expressed their confidence in Nunez, who right now is the Yankees' only option at short if Jeter can't make it for the opener, which is growing likelier by the day.
"I think he's made a lot of progress with his defense," Girardi said. "I think he's played a pretty decent shortstop. I know he had [an error] today, but that's a tough play. I think his throwing has been more consistent, which I think has given him confidence."
The Yankees have always liked Nunez's bat and his speed on the bases, and although he has hit only .225 so far this spring, Girardi has mentioned him for possible right-handed DH duty this season as well.
But Nunez's first assignment this year is likely to be one of the toughest ones ever handed to a young Yankees shortstop: namely, replace one of the best who ever played the position in pinstripes.
"Nobody can be like Derek Jeter, you know," he said. "Those are big feet, heavy feet on your back. But I don't worry about that. I'll be like Eduardo Nunez. I'll just do my best to help the team to win."
(BTW: It was Luis Sojo who opened that season at SS in 2001 while Jeter was out with a quad injury. His tenure lasted all of four games.)