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Monday, June 13, 2011
Updated: June 15, 8:17 AM ET
Life without Derek Jeter, a preview

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- For one night at least, the New York Yankees are going to get younger, faster and more athletic.

And they are also going to get a lot less experienced, a lot less accomplished and perhaps more than a little bit dumber, at least in a baseball sense.

The injury to Derek Jeter -- a Grade I calf strain apparently suffered coming out of the batter's box on a fifth-inning flyout against the Cleveland Indians on Monday night at Yankee Stadium -- will afford a visit with the Ghost of Yankee Future, a rare peek into what this team will be like after Jeter is gone.

Eduardo Nunez
Eduardo Nunez hasn't exactly distinguished himself in the field.

To many, the concept of the Jeter-less Yankees will be exciting. There will be young, speedy, dynamic Brett Gardner in the leadoff spot, a position a lot of Yankees fans think he should have owned since Opening Day.

And there will be young, speedy, dynamic Eduardo Nunez at shortstop, a player who at 23 -- he turns 24 on Wednesday, 11 days before Jeter celebrates his Casey Stengel birthday, No. 37 -- embodies everything Jeter once was but no longer is.

Right now, Gardner is hitting for a higher average than Jeter, .272 to .260. His on-base percentage is higher, .351 to .324. He has more extra-base hits than Jeter, 17 as opposed to 11. And he has walked nearly as many times, 22 as opposed to 23 -- in nearly 100 fewer at-bats.

And Nunez, in a much smaller sample, has a higher slugging percentage, .339 as opposed to .324.

So now comes a chance to test-drive the sleek new Yankees of the future, and whether it is for one night or a couple of weeks -- no one is sure how long this injury will keep Jeter on the sidelines, but a similar hurt cost Alex Rodriguez 14 games in August -- the suspicion is we will be made aware of many of the things Derek Jeter can no longer do on a baseball field, as well as many of the things neither Gardner nor Nunez is ever likely to do.

Jeter led off the bottom of the first inning of Monday night's game with a single, the 2,994th hit of his career. Curtis Granderson followed with another single and Mark Teixeira walked. The Yankees were poised for a huge inning -- bases loaded with none out and the Indians, who had already lost the first three games of the series, ready to be tucked into bed for the night.

Then Alex Rodriguez lofted a fly to medium-to-shallow center. Jeter tagged, broke -- and then stopped dead in the baseline as Michael Brantley triple-clutched on his throw, seemingly willing to concede the Yankees a run.

That may have been an example of Jeter no longer being fully confident in the speed left in his 36-year-old legs, or it may have been the prudence of a veteran expecting the rest of the Yankees' lineup to eventually bring him and the other two baserunners home.

But there is no doubt that if Gardner had been on third, he would have scored. The Yankees would have taken an early lead. Certainly, they would not have been shut out by Carlos Carrasco and a trio of Cleveland relievers, 1-0, as this one turned out, and may well have gone on to win the game.

Advantage Gardner.

But fast-forward to the seventh inning, the Yankees trailing by a run and Gardner leading off against Carrasco. Gardner gets ahead, 3-0, then takes a strike. Then fouls one off. Then, on a full count, he decides to bunt -- that's right -- and bunts it foul. Strike three.

"I was aware of what the count was,'' Gardner said.

"If you recall, he had a hit this year doing the same thing,'' said Joe Girardi, doing his best to defend the indefensible. "He just didn't bunt a strike, I don't think. He's 1-for-2 doing it. I'll take that.'' But nowhere in any book of baseball, not even in one of Girardi's infamous looseleafs, is bunting with two strikes considered a good, smart play.

Needless to say, Jeter would never do it.

Nor is he likely to do what Nunez did two weeks ago in Seattle -- namely steal second base and get himself picked off before another pitch was thrown, virtually while he was still shaking the dirt off his batting gloves.

It was the eighth inning of a game the Yankees were trailing by a run, and Nunez's gaffe represented the death of their last chance to pull out that game. They wound up losing, 4-3.

Nor can anyone recall Jeter making four errors in the space of two games that resulted in four unearned runs, as Nunez did earlier this season. In fact, no player has ever made as many errors as Nunez has -- six -- in so few innings played (100). In fact, no player had ever made six errors without playing at least 200 innings.

Clearly, the benefits of youth and speed and athleticism sometimes come at the cost of performance and good judgment. Jeter once had all of the former and still retains all of the latter. Gardner and Nunez were born with the former, and are still struggling to acquire the latter.

Gardner is widely considered to be the fastest Yankee, and among the fastest players in the league. He leads the team with 13 stolen bases. And yet, he has been caught stealing a shocking nine times, more than twice as often as any other teammate, and was thrown out twice in successive attempts on Saturday.

Call it bad luck, bad judgment or bad instincts, but it certainly happens way too often to as gifted a runner as Gardner. Clearly, even in his third big league season, Gardner is still suffering growing pains.

Jeter's pains, by contrast, are purely physical -- the pains of a fully grown and formed major leaguer upon whom the demands of 17 big league seasons and nearly 2,400 big league games are obviously taking a toll.

Still, even as his skills diminish, his durability, dependability and sky-high baseball IQ have been on display in the Bronx on a nightly basis.

"It's strange to see him leave a game,'' Gardner said. "He pretty much plays through everything.''

For at least one night, and perhaps more, the Yankees are going to have to play without Derek Jeter.

This will come as distressing news to some, and long-overdue welcome news to others.

To those in the latter category, the message is clear: Be careful what you wish for, because you're going to get it. And a lot sooner than you might have thought.