Jeter's farewell tour is off and running

Derek Jeter was pain-free in his return to action, which was music to Joe Girardi's ears. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

TAMPA, Fla. -- There was very little drama in Derek Jeter's return to the Yankees on Thursday, and neither the player nor his team could have asked for anything more.

No stirring home run, like the one Jeter belted to put an exclamation point on his chase for 3,000 hits in 2011. No spectacular jump-throw to nail a baserunner at first, as we have seen so many times over the past two decades. No headlong dives into the stands.

And most importantly, no premature exit from the game after something as routine as running to first. As the man says, nice and easy does it every time.

That was exactly what the Yankees and Jeter wanted to see in his first game since Sept. 7, 2013, when he knocked in a sixth-inning run and left the game, his aching left ankle too sore to allow him to finish up. His place on the basepaths that night was taken by Mark Reynolds, who was never a speed demon and is no longer a Yankee.

If that was the way Jeter’s career was going to end, there was nothing memorable about it.

And there was nothing memorable about the way it resumed, on Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, at a George M. Steinbrenner Field that was less than half full, possibly because of a weather forecast that called for a chilly -- by Florida standards -- and rainy afternoon.

But for Jeter and Joe Girardi, it could not have gone better -- 0-for-2, both groundouts, one of them a double play, and not a single ground ball to test his range in the field.

Both Jeter and Girardi, however, got the information they were seeking in the time it took a 39-year-old man to run from home to first base in the fourth inning. Jeter bounced one to deep third and took off running, the throw from Josh Harrison veering toward his head and, in the judgment of Tim Hallion, barely nipping him for the out.

Jeter or Girardi, or both, could have argued the call, and had the new replay rule been in effect, the manager certainly would have thrown the flag.

But this was a preseason game, meaningless by its very definition, although quite meaningful in ways that are not shown on the scoreboard.

Just the fact that Jeter could make that 90-foot sprint and then return to the field the next inning told them both all they needed to know, the way a group of NASA technicians could watch a launchpad test and know their rocket was going to make it to the moon.

“We haven’t seen that in a while," Girardi said. “You gotta go back to 2012. So that’s a great sign for us and a great sign for him."

“Running doesn’t concern me," Jeter said. “It’s just playing games. I feel like I haven’t played in a game for two years."

But the reason he has played in so few games over the past two years -- Jeter was limited to just 17 games last season after breaking his ankle on Oct. 2, 2012, in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series versus the Detroit Tigers -- was because he couldn’t run without pain.

So Jeter’s running -- even just 90 feet in a meaningless game -- is a major concern to everyone involved with the Yankees.

To Girardi, the fact that Jeter could make that run was the most important thing he could have done in this game. More important than hitting, fielding or throwing.

“Last year, running seemed to bother him as much as anything," Girardi said. “To me that was where it was most noticeable last year, when he was running the bases, so to me, that’s where it’s going to show up. But there were no issues today."

Girardi said Jeter would get Friday off -- other than the team’s journey to Panama in mid-March, he will be making very few road trips this spring and certainly not to Lakeland -- but would be in his lineup Saturday when CC Sabathia makes his spring debut, and Masahiro Tanaka gets his first chance to throw to major league hitters, even if it will be a relief appearance against a crew of likely Triple-A players late in the game.

The idea is to ease Jeter back into action a little at a time, with the aim of playing him in six games, two sets of three with a day off in between, during the final week of spring training as a final preparation for the regular season.

Because Girardi seems to believe that in spite of all the high-priced talent stockpiled by the Yankees this winter -- they also signed Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran -- his team needs Jeter on the field on a regular basis in order to be successful.

“I think it’s important that we’re able to run him out there on a consistent basis, and that he is Derek," Girardi said. “He splits up our left-handers, and he just gives us more of a continuity to our lineup and to our club."

Such thinking comes as second nature to Jeter. “I’ve always been an important part of the team," he said. “I’ve never gone into a season thinking I wasn’t important. If I did, I would have left a long time ago."

But he’s not leaving just yet, and in order for him to finish up strong in his 20th and final big league season, both Jeter and his manager recognize he needs to throttle it back a little bit in his final spring.

“We’ll keep him on an every-other-day schedule probably for a little bit here, and I’ll just continue to communicate with him," Girardi said. “And as we go along, I’ll see. If he says he wants to go back-to-back and we think it’s a good idea, we’ll do it. But there were no issues today and we need to keep it that way."

There’s plenty of time for Derek Jeter to be dramatic and spectacular later on. For now, the Yankees just need him to be healthy.