Captain a crutch for reeling Yankees

NEW YORK -- Hard as it is to believe, the New York Yankees brought Derek Jeter back only because they had no other choice. If Jeter had retired following his dreadful 2010 or if he had decided to play out his twilight years on someone else's dime, the men who run the Yankees would not have cried themselves a river.

Brian Cashman and Randy Levine might have actually proposed a champagne toast to their good fortune instead.

But the shortstop wanted to play on, and he wanted to play on as captain of the Yankees, the team of his childhood dreams. Cashman and Levine had to make a deal with their aging, declining free agent. He was Derek Jeter, after all. Nobody wants to be the executive who fired Derek Jeter.

The Yanks did play hardball at the negotiating table, their way of saying they believed Jeter was done as the driving force of a championship-level team. When the franchise that first started paying him as a teenager refused to meet his salary demands, Jeter was left in his Trump World Tower pad pleading with Levine to add richer incentive clauses to the contract, if only as a way of saving face.

And look at where the 2012 Yankees are right now, gasping for air as they hope a one-legged, 38-year-old shortstop/designated hitter can save them from oblivion. Jeter is their best player, their toughest player, their only regular hitting better than .300 -- all of that for old times' sake.

He passed Willie Mays on the career hits list Friday night and became the 10th most prolific batter in the sport's history at the expense of David Price, the same guy who surrendered his 3,000th hit on a towering homer and the odds-on favorite to serve up Jeter's 4,257th, if there is to be a 4,257th, the one that would put him past Pete Rose.

Jeter got another standing ovation for hit No. 3,284, the fifth-inning single past the second baseman that landed him ahead of Mays. "Our fans are the best fans in the world; I've always said that," Jeter said. "They appreciate a lot about history ... and yeah, it makes you feel good."

But the captain could feel only so good on a night when the Tampa Bay Rays beat the home team by a 6-4 count, leaving the Yankees to wonder whether this developing collapse is destined to go into the books next to the collapse of last year's Red Sox.

Jeter's team held a 10-game lead in the American League East long after Mariano Rivera and Michael Pineda were lost, and now the Yankees face the grim prospect of missing out on the playoffs altogether, never mind missing out on the division. At the end of July, with the Yankees 10 1/2 games ahead of his Red Sox, Bobby Valentine told ESPNNewYork.com this of the Yanks' postseason chances:

"Maybe they won't get in it. Who knows? Crazy things happen in this game."

That statement might turn out to be the only thing Valentine got right all year.

On Friday, CC Sabathia betrayed his responsibilities as an ace, again, coughed up an early lead, again, and lost a duel with Price, again. Sabathia maintained his elbow was fine and said he simply didn't make his pitches, not that the fans cared about the hows and whys.

They booed him as he left the mound in the seventh. In the losing clubhouse, Sabathia would say, "Today should've been a day when I went out and dominated. ... There's no excuse for the way I pitched today."

Postgame accountability will carry these Yankees only so far. Mark Teixeira is down, and their fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth batters are hitting .208 (Russell Martin), .200 (Andruw Jones), .234 (Curtis Granderson) and .237 (Steve Pearce).

Robinson Cano isn't having a true Robinson Cano season, and Alex Rodriguez's two-run blast in the eighth was only his 18th home run -- and only his 51st and 52nd RBIs -- in another injury-plagued season. A-Rod passed Lou Gehrig for ninth place on the career runs list, a milestone that didn't resonate like Jeter's hurdling of Mays.

"It's a good feeling," Jeter said, "but we're trying to win games here."

Trying and failing.

That's why Jeter keeps playing through the bone bruise in his ankle, the one that's forced Joe Girardi to use him as a DH. "If I had a 10-game lead," the manager said, "I'd probably give him some days off."

Girardi had a 10-game lead, and now it's all gone. He can't rely on Sabathia anymore, and he knows there are holes throughout his lineup. Andy Pettitte threw off the mound before Friday's game, fielded some grounders and declared himself ready to make Tuesday night's start, but even Girardi can't sell a 40-year-old being rushed back from a broken leg as a credible savior.

Pettitte isn't the hobbling Core Four survivor most likely to drag the slow-bleeding Yanks across the finish line. Jeter is their last man standing (barely), and Girardi knows it. Before he posted his lineup for this opener against Tampa, the manager found his captain in the clubhouse and asked him how he was feeling.

Jeter said one word, fine. "That was the extent of our conversation," the captain said.

He likes talking about injuries as much as he likes losing. Down three runs in the eighth, Jeter sent the first pitch from Joel Peralta high and foul toward the first-base seats. As he watched Carlos Pena track it, the DH staggered toward the on-deck circle and leaned and winced and body-Englished the ball into the stands.

Five pitches later, Jeter ripped another single to right and waited for A-Rod to homer him home.

With two outs and a runner on second in the top of the ninth, and the Yankees trying to hold the deficit at one, Jeter's replacement at short, Eduardo Nunez, made a little league stab at a routine grounder, and that was that. Jeter would finish the game as a three-pitch strikeout victim of Fernando Rodney's, an undignified end to the captain's dignified night.

Girardi said his injured DH looked better running the bases and sounded hopeful that Jeter could return to shortstop ASAP. Two years after they rehired him only because they had to, the Yankees need Derek Jeter as desperately as they needed him in his dynastic prime.

That's a tribute to an aging Jeter, and an indictment of his declining team.