Commentary

Losing Jeter a big blow for Yankees

Yanks' captain will be sidelined for the rest of the playoffs after fracturing ankle

Updated: October 14, 2012, 11:23 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Postseason baseball has a way of making emotions turn in a flash. A long fly ball here or a diving catch there can turn despair to joy and joy back to despair depending on which dugout your team happens to inhabit. The mood can shift from one extreme to the other within the confines of a few innings or at-bats, or even a single pitch.

Just ask Drew Storen, Jim Johnson and Mat Latos, who served up pivotal hits to Pete Kozma, Raul Ibanez and Buster Posey that changed the course of events during a captivating run of baseball in the division series. In living rooms across America, fists pumped and remotes were hurled at TV screens in response.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Alex Trautwig/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter was in agony after fracturing his left ankle while attempting to field a ball in the 12th inning of Game 1.

But with the exception of the Washington Nationals, it can safely be said that no team experienced a more profound swing than the New York Yankees did in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against Detroit on Saturday night. First there was Ibanez, the best October clutch hitter who doesn't play in the shadow of the Gateway Arch, rocking Yankee Stadium with a ninth-inning homer off Jose Valverde to vault the Yankees into a 4-all tie. Just like that, he injected a sense of yes-we-can into a dormant New York offense that's been a monument to "No, we can't."

An hour or so later came the 180-degree turn: Derek Jeter stumbled in pursuit of a Jhonny Peralta ground ball up the middle, grimaced and made a token flip to Robinson Cano while lying face down in the dirt. Moments later, he was heading to the dugout with his arms over the shoulders of manager Joe Girardi and trainer Steve Donohue, en route to some very bad news.

Jeter suffered a fractured left ankle that will require surgery and has an estimated three-month recovery. The Yankees say the injury isn't career-threatening, although the impact remains to be seen for an athlete who will turn 39 next summer, and needs to cut and change course on a dime in conjunction with the daily demands of his job.

The grim short-term reality: The Yankees will have to play the rest of this year without their captain, team leader and emotional soul. That plot twist was enough to relegate the final result -- a 6-4, 12-inning victory for Detroit -- to a relative afterthought.

Jeter, who is always at his locker to accommodate reporters through good days and bad, was unavailable after the game. But his teammates tried their best to put his injury in perspective. They have come to regard him as impervious to pain, so there was something incongruous about him lying on the field in a state of utter helplessness.

"It was a terrible moment," Ibanez said. "I can't even describe it. It's a very difficult moment to watch, because if he's on the ground, you know something bad has happened.

"Right now, obviously, I'm concerned for his well-being. The guy has the heart of a lion. I always knew what a great player he was, but I didn't know how big his heart was until I watched him and what he's been going through to go out there and compete. The guy is just a tremendous competitor."

Jeter's refusal to come out of the lineup was evident this year when he played 159 games and led the AL with 216 hits despite a painful bone bruise in his left ankle. The injury, which has dogged him since early September, was apparently unrelated to the fracture.

As Jeter went down, Girardi had a flashback to early May, when closer Mariano Rivera tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee while shagging fly balls and had to undergo season-ending surgery. Andy Pettitte made a nice midseason comeback and Jorge Posada is enjoying his retirement, but it's been a trying season for 50 percent of the Yankees' Core Four.

"Just like Mo said, we have to move on," Girardi said. "We have to find a way to get it done. I think some people left us for dead when Mo went down, and here we are in the ALCS. And Jeet is going to tell us, 'Let's go.' I'm sad for him because I know how much he loves to play [the game] and play in these types of situations. But he would tell us, 'Let's go.'"

Jeter has such a high pain threshold and Cal Ripken-like desire to see his name on the lineup card, he has appeared in 150 or more games in 13 of his 18 major league seasons (and logged 149 and 148 games in two others). His durability is impressive given that he hits at the top of the order, has logged 348 career stolen bases and is always just a takeout slide away from a trip to the disabled list.

When Jayson Nix played shortstop in Game 4 of the division series, it marked the first time anyone but Jeter started a postseason game for the Yankees at the position since 1995, when Buck Showalter penciled in Tony Fernandez at short in the ALDS against the Seattle Mariners.

After Jeter left the game Saturday, he received the initial diagnosis from Dr. Chris Ahmad, the Yankees' team physician. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and former manager and current MLB executive Joe Torre were also in the room, and former Yankees players Tino Martinez and Reggie Jackson passed through as well.

Cashman said Ahmad made it clear to Jeter that "this is something you can't play through," and that Jeter had no visible reaction to the news.

As difficult as the news is for Jeter's fellow Yankees to digest, they don't have much time to adjust to the new world order. They've added Eduardo Nunez to the roster, but Nix most likely will fill the role of starting shortstop in Jeter's absence and be in the lineup for Game 2 at 4 p.m. ET Sunday in the Bronx.

Aside from his intangibles, Jeter was having one heck of a productive season. His .316 batting average was the second highest ever for a shortstop age 38 or older, trailing only Honus Wagner's .324 season in 1912. While Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher and Cano have taken turns getting booed for their ineffectiveness at the plate, Jeter was hitting .333 (9-for-27) this postseason. But now he's just another spectator.

"Our job is to find a way over every obstacle," Cashman said. "We have to find a way to move forward. Is this a big loss? Yes. Is it something where we are going to allow ourselves to stop dreaming and trying to achieve our goal? No, we won't allow that."

The Yankees will try to put on a brave face as they wrap their minds around life without their captain. Beyond the concerned expressions and vows of professionalism, they know the task is harder than mere words can convey.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer