How Derek Jeter Playing Hurt Could Be Final Nail in Yankees' Playoff Coffin

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How Derek Jeter Playing Hurt Could Be Final Nail in Yankees' Playoff Coffin
David Butler II-US PRESSWIRE

Given all that's gone on this season, the last thing the New York Yankees wanted to see this month was Derek Jeter hobbling around with an apparently serious injury.

That's exactly what they saw in the eighth inning of their eventual 5-4 win over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Wednesday night. Jeter busted down the line on a tailor-made double-play ball to second base, and he started limping pretty much as soon as he crossed the bag and was called out at first base.

Everyone in the Yankees dugout and every Yankees fan across the nation (probably) all said the same thing: "Uh oh..."

Jeter left the game immediately, but it didn't take long for him to come out and quell the unrest over his injury. He admitted after the game that the play at first base aggravated a bone bruise in his left ankle that he had already been dealing with, but he made it clear right then and there that he wasn't planning on missing any time.

"I don't talk about injuries," Jeter said, via Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. "Either you play or you don't. I'm playing, so it's not an issue. At this point in the season, I'm sure there are a lot of guys that have some things bothering them. I'm really never one to talk about them."

As if there was ever any doubt (and there was), Jeter said he expects to be in the starting lineup for Thursday's rubber game against the Red Sox.

Classic Jeter. What a gamer. Baseball needs more players like this guy, am I right?

Such was the general response among the fans after Jeter came out and insisted that he's healthy enough to play, and at least one writer came out and started championing Jeter's unparalleled gutsiness. 

That would be Wallace Matthews of ESPN, who wrote an eyeball-roller of a column that included this little nugget:

Jeter would not even admit he was hurt if he was bleeding profusely and missing body parts. He is like the knight in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" who gamely and cheerfully carries on even as one limb after another is hacked off.

Just in case you're not a Monty Python fan; photo via CastlesandCooks.com

Uh, sure. But, I'm not entirely sold on the notion that comparing Jeter to the Black Knight is much of a compliment. After all, the Black Knight only made things worse for himself by trying to fight through his injuries.

Likewise, Jeter could make things worse for himself by insisting to play with his wounded ankle. And in doing so, he could make things worse for a Yankees team that doesn't need any more hurdles to overcome.

Yeah, yeah. You can take Jeter's word for it that he's fine and that this is something he can play through, but let's all stop short of thinking that a bone bruise in one's ankle is no big deal. We're talking about a not insignificant injury, not to mention a very painful one.

As David Lennon of Newsday pointed out on Thursday, New York Mets first baseman Ike Davis suffered a bone bruise in his left ankle last May, and it ultimately kept him off the field for the rest of the season. According to the New York Daily News, the Mets at one point were worried that Davis' ankle injury would require microfracture surgery.

Jeter's own bone bruise doesn't appear to be as bad, but it clearly got worse on Wednesday night. We'll see how he looks on Thursday night, but he was limping pretty bad when we last saw him, and all he was doing was walking around. He could look a lot worse while running, hitting, fielding, rounding the bases and so on.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi, as expected, is the one guy who's not afraid to be honest about Jeter. Girardi told MLB.com (see above link) that he wasn't surprised to hear Jeter say he was fine but that he has his own perspective of the situation.

Said Girardi:

I'm aware of what's going on, but it is concerning that he can't run. For the most part, it's been when you watch him run, it's when he has to make turns that he's been hobbled a little bit.

Straight forward, he's had no problem. When he lunged [for first base], he reaggravated it. It hasn't went away, so it's just something we've got to deal with. Hopefully he's OK tomorrow.

It's great that Jeter can run forward without any problems, but he will have to lunge for first base again eventually, and he will have to round the bases, play defense, and of course, hit. All of these things could prove to be rather difficult with so much pain in his left ankle, and that opens up the possibility of Jeter doing more harm than good while trying to play through his injury.

Jeter's defense is particularly concerning because he's a below-average defensive shortstop to begin with. He has little trouble making plays when the ball is hit to him, but he rates as the worst defensive shortstop in the majors in terms of UZR and DRS, according to FanGraphs. It's by no means crazy to think that his wounded ankle will make him even more of an ineffective defensive player.

The Yankees will gladly take poor defense as long as the hits keep coming, and Jeter deserves no shortage of credit for the fact that he's kept the hits coming virtually all year. He's been particularly good over the last six weeks or so, as he hit .350 in the month of August and is hitting .370, so far, in September.

Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images
Note the position of his left foot.

What concerns me about Jeter's hitting, however, is that his swing puts a little extra strain on his left ankle. Those familiar with Jeter's swing will know that he twists his left foot to the side when he follows through, and that's presumably something that will cause the pain in his ankle to flair up.

If the pain gets in Jeter's head and forces him to change his swing to make things less painful for his ankle, he could easily get out of whack at the plate. 

The worst-case scenario, thus, involves Jeter turning into both a defensive and an offensive liability while he tries to play through his wounded ankle, and that's just what the Yankees need right now. Jeter has been their most consistent hitter all season, and he's been their best hitter in September by a mile. If his production disappears, the Yankees offense could fall into complete disarray.

Yes, Jeter will still be bringing his legendary intangibles with him every time he takes the field, but intangibles are only worth so much without numbers. And indeed, the very sight of Jeter trying and failing to play through his injury could demoralize the Yankees rather than inspire them.

To clarify where we all stand on this matter, I'm not saying that Jeter's insistence that he can play through his ankle injury will result in total disaster. He's done enough throughout his career to prove that he can play through pain, so maybe, he'll pull through just fine.

Will Jeter hit over or under .300 the rest of the way with a bad ankle?

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But to assume that he will pull through just because he's Derek Jeter is the pinnacle of foolishness. He's not superhuman. He's 38 years old, and his body has accumulated a lot of wear and tear throughout the course of the season. The odds of him making things worse for both himself and the Yankees are at least equal to the odds of everything going hunky dory.

And if Jeter does make things worse for himself and the Yankees, they'll be in trouble. It's hard enough for them to win games these days even with Jeter at his Jeter-esque best. Without his usual production, their chances of even making the playoffs will take a dive.

At the moment, the Yankees' margin for error is razor-thin. If Jeter can't play through his ankle injury, they'll have no margin for error whatsoever.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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