Yankees' best infield does not include Jeter

On my scorecard from Sunday’s 4-2 New York Yankees victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, there are five plays on the Rays side of the ledger that are circled, the universal designation that something extraordinary was done by a defender.

One of them was in the ninth inning, when Ichiro Suzuki -- inserted into right field for late-inning defense -- ran down and snagged a line drive by James Loney that was headed into the gap.

The other four were plays made by infielders. And none of those infielders was Derek Jeter.

Jeter, of course, had been given a second straight DH day by manager Joe Girardi, and so the Yankees' infield was comprised of Chase Headley at third base, Stephen Drew at shortstop, Martin Prado at second base and Mark Teixeira at first base.

As the game unfolded, it became increasingly clear that this infield, seen for the first time all season, was the best collection of gloves the Yankees can put out there for their remaining 40 games.

And as anyone who has watched this team play its first 122 games could tell you, there is now so little margin for error that Girardi really can’t justify using anyone else.

Not even Jeter, the Yankees' captain, a certain first-ballot and possibly even unanimous Hall of Fame selection, and one of the most (deservedly) beloved players ever to wear their uniform.

This reality, which played out in full view of 30,000 fans at Tropicana Field and countless more in front of televisions -- and, of course, Jeter himself -- is causing Girardi no end of awkwardness in postgame interviews, and undoubtedly in private moments when he is isolated from everything but his own thoughts on how best to get his team into October.

Asked after the game if he agreed that the infield he put out there Sunday was the one that gives his team the best chance to win, Girardi gave as revealing an answer as any manager could while at the same time maintaining the decorum and diplomacy necessary in dealing with the final days of a legend.

"That’s not a discussion that I really want to have right now," he said. "With Carlos [Beltran] being able to play the outfield, I can obviously do some different things. But Jeet’s my shortstop."

That answer says so many things in so few words, but the gist of it is simple: I, Joe Girardi, am not going to be the one to tell Derek Jeter he is no longer my best option at shortstop.

And you can’t really blame the guy. But the simple fact is, the Yankees' infield defense is significantly better when the four players who started Sunday are on the field, in their correct positions.

In the first inning, Prado made a diving stop on a grounder by Evan Longoria with runners on first and third. A run scored, but had the ball gone through, the runner on first might have gotten to third and scored when the next hitter, Loney, flied out to left.

In the fourth, Headley made a spectacular diving catch on a line drive by Loney that had double written all over it. In the fifth, it was Prado again, ranging to his right to snag Jose Molina's grounder up the middle, pirouetting gracefully and getting the last out of the inning.

And in the eighth, it was Drew’s turn to make a diving stop on Desmond Jennings. Even though Jennings beat the throw to first, the implication was clear. With most other shortstops, that ball goes through, and had there been a runner in scoring position it would mean another run. But no matter, because Drew made another sparkler on the next hitter, Ben Zobrist, to get a key forceout at second base.

Too many times this season Girardi has been forced, mostly through injury, to play good defenders at positions where they are not being used to their best advantage. Prado, an infielder by trade who has played some left field, was forced into action in right field because of the elbow injury suffered by Beltran, and Girardi’s own seeming reluctance to play the 40-year-old Suzuki very much. Drew, an excellent shortstop, and Headley, an excellent third baseman, have both been forced to play second base (and even first base in the case of Headley, when Teixeira missed some games due to injury).

And also because the Yankees already have a shortstop named Derek Jeter.

Now, I have never been a member of the sabermetrics brigade that has maintained for years that Jeter is among the worst defensive shortstops in all of baseball. In fact, I think it is a load of bunk. Jeter is sure-handed, still has a terrific arm, and gobbles up just about anything hit to him.

But he is also 40 years old, and range was never a strong suit of his, even at his best. Now, in a season in which he is trying to do something that has essentially never been done -- has there ever been a 40-year-old everyday shortstop? -- his lack of range has been even more apparent. Lack of range, of course, often translates into runs for the other guys. And for a team like the Yankees, which struggles to score more than three runs a night, run prevention is as important as run manufacture.

And I do believe Jeter's bat still has value, as evidenced by his game-winning single in the ninth inning Saturday night.

What it means is that Girardi’s best use of his assets the rest of the way is to use his personnel the way he did Sunday. That means Headley at third, Drew at shortstop, Prado at second. And Jeter as his right-handed DH.

It will not be a popular choice with Jeter, who has made it clear he hates DH'ing -- “To be honest with you, I'm not sure how people do it. I just run out of things to do," he said Saturday -- or with the fans who will be coming specifically to see Jeter in the final weeks of his final season, and certainly not just to see him bat four times per game.

But if Girardi really wants his team to make the playoffs, some hard choices are going to have to be made -- with some feathers ruffled, and unfortunately some feelings probably hurt.

And that difficult conversation, that Girardi would so like to avoid, may have to take place, and soon.

QUESTION: Should Joe Girardi continue to use Derek Jeter at shortstop for the remainder of the season?