Derek Jeter hitless in return

CLEVELAND -- A lot of things have changed around the New York Yankees since Derek Jeter strained his right calf in a game on June 13.

At the end of business on that day, the Yankees were eight games over .500 (36-28) and in second place in the AL East, 2½ games behind the Boston Red Sox.

In Jeter's absence, they won 14 of 18 games, moved to 18 games over .500 (50-32) and moved back into first place, ahead of the Red Sox by 1½ games.

But two things have not changed: Jeter is still the Yankees' leadoff hitter, and he still needs six hits to reach the exclusive 3,000 hit club, a pursuit that continued Monday night against the Indians after a three-week hiatus.

In his first game back since he took himself out of a game at Yankee Stadium on June 13, Jeter went 0-for-4, reaching on an error in the first inning, flying out in the third, grounding out in the sixth, and lining out hard to shortstop in his final at-bat in the eighth.

"I was a little nervous because I hadn't played in three weeks," Jeter said after the Yankees lost 6-3. "It was a little like Opening Day again. Three weeks off is a long time when you're playing baseball."

Jeter said he felt better as the game went on. "That last at-bat I felt pretty good," he said. "I hit a pretty good slider up the middle."

Most importantly, Jeter said he had "no issues" when it came to running on the injured calf, which was diagnosed with a Grade I strain suffered leaving the batter's box in the fifth inning of a game against the Indians three weeks ago.

"I feel good," he said. "I'm playing tomorrow."

Before the game, Jeter held a press conference in the interview room at Progressive Field, where he addressed his continuing pursuit of the 3,000th hit and his election by the fans as the starting shortstop for this year's All-Star Game in Phoenix on July 12.

"I'm not happy with my first half," he said. "But you still appreciate what the fans think about you. In that sense it feels good. Am I going to play? I don't know. I'm just trying to get out here and play this first game."

Jeter played two rehab games for the Double-A Trenton Thunder over the weekend, going 2-for-4 with two walks and a run scored. He also made a throwing error in Sunday's game.

But he said his calf "felt good" after his first DL stint since suffering a dislocated shoulder on Opening Day of the 2003 season, and he insisted he was feeling no pressure to get his 3,000th hit before the All-Star break.

"It's been three weeks between hits," he said. "I really haven't thought about it. My focus has been on trying to get back, and rehabbing, so I haven't really been focusing on number of hits. So at this moment, it doesn't feel close."

Neither Jeter nor Yankees manager Joe Girardi would commit to Jeter playing on all three games against the Indians, but Jeter said his stated preference to get his 3,000th hit at home -- the Yankees return to Yankee Stadium on Thursday for four games with the Tampa Bay Rays before the All-Star break -- would not be a factor in whether he plays or not.

"I'm not going to be thinking about it today," he said. "I don't want to jinx myself, but hopefully if I get a few hits, then I'll think about it if I get a little bit closer. But at this point, I just want to go out and play a game. Because I haven't played in a while."

"I'm going to talk (to him) after today, see how he feels, and make some decisions," Girardi said.

Girardi added: "I want him to get to 3,000 as soon as he can," Girardi said. "I'm going to manage him more from a physical standpoint than 3,000 hits."

But Girardi's decision to put Jeter back into the leadoff spot, despite the team's success in his absence and the hot hitting of Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher and Eduardo Nunez in his place was a no-brainer.

"It was easy," the manager said. "It was like he never left."

In Jeter's absence, Nunez, his replacement at shortstop, went 21-for-61 (.344) including seven hits in eight at-bats over the weekend against the Mets.

"Nunez played well, he played extremely well," Jeter said. "One thing that's challenging for a young player is not playing every day. So he got an opportunity to play every day. I don't want to speak on his behalf, but I think he probably got a lot more confident by playing. He swung the bat extremely well."

Jeter was not unaware of the success the Yankees had while he was away.

"I wish we went 18-0, to be honest with you," he said. "We want to win. When you have good streaks, you want them to last as long as possible. We did a great job, especially in interleague play. We played well. We hit well, we pitched well. We did a lot of things that were good. So hopefully that will continue."

To make room for Jeter, the Yankees optioned outfielder Chris Dickerson to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Dickerson batted .300 (6 for 20) in 31 games for New York.

Jeter signed a three-year, $51 million contract this winter but he is clearly on the decline. There has been renewed debate about how long the Yankees should wait before moving one of the most popular players in Yankees history out of the top of the lineup. Jeter said he doesn't feel any pressure to perform in the season's second half to silence critics.

"I don't try to prove anything to anyone," he said. "I try to help my team win. There's been constant questions. It's nothing new to me. I try not to pay attention to it (criticism) and try to improve."

Asked what he needed to work on this season, Jeter said, "Everything."

"I need to be a little more consistent than I have been," he said. "I can't change anything that has happened in the past. I've been criticized before. I take it as a challenge."

Girardi said the time off could serve Jeter well.

"A lot of times guys come back and they get their legs back under you," Girardi said. "I hope it works out that way."

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.