- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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BOSTON -- In any other ballpark, on any other night, Mark Teixeira would have been watching a forgettable fly ball in the early stages of a New York Yankees rout. Only this was Fenway Park, a place where high flies to left are desired commodities, leaving Teixeira to track the flight path of a home run that was far more important to him than it was to the box score.
Sure, it traveled only 344 feet, a distance that would've kept the ball in play in 29 out of 30 big league stadiums. If Teixeira and Yankees manager Joe Girardi thought it was long gone off the bat to open the third inning, thought the winds had held it up, this much was not in dispute: The shot barely cleared the Green Monster.
But Teixeira hadn't hit a homer of any length since June 6 of last season, a season stripped down to 15 games by wrist surgery. Until he put just enough wood on Felix Doubront's 0-1 curve, Teixeira had managed five extra-base hits in 79 at-bats since the end of the 2012 season.
The 34-year-old first baseman had also just come off a four-strikeout performance against the Boston Red Sox that would've put him in the crosshairs of fans on the Internet and reporters in the press box had Michael Pineda not literally and figuratively stuck out his neck for him.
So this qualified as a moment for Teixeira, the swing that made it 5-0 in the unruly mess that would be a 14-5 victory, a result that gave the winners some desperately needed separation from Pineda's pine-tar follies from the night before.
"It was big for him," Girardi said. "I think it means a lot to him. It probably gives him that little, 'OK, all right, here we go.'"
As he dressed at his locker Thursday night, Teixeira sounded more relieved than encouraged by the fact that he'd put a ball over the wall for the 342nd time in his career. "It just feels good to be back in the mix," he said, "because I've been out of the mix for a long time."
The Yankees can't afford for Teixeira to be out of the mix this year, the final year of Derek Jeter's career. No more Robinson Cano and no more Alex Rodriguez means no more cover for a Yankee who figures to be as vital as any from here to October. The first baseman needs to be more the Teixeira of old, and less the old Teixeira, and his physical and statistical decline in recent years suggests that Girardi will need some luck on this one, as in a lot.
Teixeira's 2012 was compromised by a calf injury, among other ailments. His wrist might never be quite the same, and he's already spent time on the DL in 2014, this after he chased a foul ball in Toronto and ended up straining the same hamstring he tore up in the 2010 playoffs.
"I've got a lot of rust to shake off," Teixeira agreed. Though he said his wrist keeps getting stronger, he described his return to the Yankees' order as "a fight every day to stay healthy and to produce."
It's a fight he has to win. These aren't the historic 125-win Yankees of 1998, or even the 2009 Yankees team that was elevated by a Teixeira who honored his $180 million deal by batting .292, hitting 39 homers, and driving in 122 runs.
The 2014 Yanks have a retiring captain who will turn 40 in June, and enough holes throughout the roster to suggest that their margin for error in the AL East will be supermodel thin. That's why they couldn't afford Ivan Nova going down for the season, or Pineda getting ejected Wednesday night and then suspended for 10 games.
That's why they can't afford Teixeira to keep trending the way he's been trending, with his batting average and OPS plunging and with his body betraying a career that appeared to be on the fast track to Cooperstown. Teixeira, Jimmie Foxx and Albert Pujols are the only first basemen ever to piece together eight straight seasons of at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs before turning 32.
Despite a strong body of evidence working against the possibility, Girardi believes that Teixeira -- the 2009 version -- could make a comeback. "I never put limitations on players," he said. "I don't know where his numbers are going to end up if he stays healthy, but why would you say he can't? I'm open to it."
Teixeira? He's in no position to make any predictions or promises. He is, however, willing to embrace the pressures that come with being a big-money player who no longer has the big-bang protection provided by Cano and A-Rod.
"I've always felt that burden," Teixeira said. "I've always felt that pressure. I've hit in the middle of the lineup my entire career. I've been asked to put up numbers and play great defense my entire career, and if I'm healthy that's what I plan on doing."
That's a big if, of course. But one night after those four strikeouts in four at-bats, Teixeira didn't have to settle for three walks worth of payback. His third-inning homer off Doubront -- his first at Fenway since one against the same pitcher on July 7, 2012 -- wasn't exactly the homer that made him a made pinstriped man, the 11th inning walk-off he hit to beat the Twins in the 2009 playoffs. But hey, it felt good all the same.
"It's always fun hitting home runs at Fenway," Teixeira said, "because I love playing in this ballpark. It's also nice to get the first one out of the way."
The first one for a Yankees team that will need plenty more where those came from.