Derek Jeter plays SS, bats leadoff

TAMPA, Fla. -- For the first three innings, Derek Jeter stood where a shortstop stands, thought what a shortstop thinks, readied himself on each pitch the way a shortstop normally does.

But it was not until 16 batters had come to the plate that a ground ball finally made its way to his hands. Jeter hardly had to move, easily picking the bouncing ball and flipping it underhand to second baseman Gil Velazquez for the first out of the fourth inning.

That was the only time Jeter handled the baseball Wednesday night in his first game playing the field after having to be helped off the Yankee Stadium turf last October with a broken left ankle.

Still, it was a significant hurdle in Jeter's return to full-time play.

"It was good to be out there again," Jeter said after putting in four innings during the Yankees' eventual 6-2 win against the Philadelphia Phillies at Steinbrenner Field.

"You get nervous a little bit, until you get your first ground ball, your first at-bat, but that's pretty normal," he said. "It really just felt as though it was like a first spring training game."

It wasn't Jeter's fault that he barely got a chance to play the field. Two possible chances were cut off in front of him by third baseman Kevin Youkilis, who made a diving stop on one that ended the third inning with two Phillies on base.

"I had that one, too," Jeter said, laughing. "I told him that, too."

Jeter had reason to laugh, playing the field for the first time since last Oct. 13, when his left ankle, already compromised by a bone bruise, snapped as he moved to his left to field a ground ball in the 12th inning of Game 1 of the AL Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers.

Jeter needed assistance to get to the dugout, and a week later he underwent surgery, including the insertion of a metal plate and screws, to mend the bone.

It has been a long rehabilitation process, and until Wednesday night, his spring had consisted of an endless and monotonous series of fielding drills, baserunning drills, and batting practice sessions until he was finally inserted into the lineup as a designated hitter over the weekend.

But it was no substitute for real game action, and Jeter's excitement was evident in the way he charged out to his position well ahead of his teammates when the Yankees took the field to start the game. It turned out to be the fastest he ran all night.

"You saw my first-step quickness there?" he said jokingly.

But his joy at playing the field again was apparent even to teammates who have watched him play with unusual intensity and enthusiasm for the past 18 years.

"He's got to be happy to be out there again," said Andy Pettitte, who made his first start of the spring as well, working into the fourth inning and allowing a run on four hits and three walks. "He was mouthing the whole time out there. So it was good."

Added Mariano Rivera, who made his second appearance of the spring, pitching a 1-2-3 fifth on a tidy nine pitches: "He didn't get too many ground balls, but I was hoping he didn't get too many, either. At least he was out there, moving around. Hopefully, he feels good."

Said Yankees manager Joe Girardi: "It just feels right to have him out there."

Jeter said aside from some normal body soreness, he felt fine. In addition to playing the field, he also went from first to third on a single after walking in the second inning.

"This was a good starting point," he said. "But there's still a lot of different things I have to do, still steps I have to take to be ready."

He said stealing a base, running on a 3-2 pitch and scoring from second are on his preseason checklist, as well as making a diving or instinctive play in the field without worrying about reinjuring himself.

Girardi said eventually Jeter will play in back-to-back games, perhaps as soon as this weekend, but added the 38-year-old shortstop will have the day off when the Yankees travel to Dunedin to play the Blue Jays on Thursday.

"Doing it in practice is more of a controlled environment but when you're in a game, you just react to it," Jeter said. "But we have plenty of time for that. As I said all along, the goal is April 1."

Asked if that was still a realistic goal, Jeter smiled.

"I'll be fine," he said. "I'll be good."