NEW YORK — Derek Jeter walked to home plate, toyed with his batting gloves, stepped into the batter’s box as fans chanted his name and legged out an infield hit.
A feeling of normalcy returned to the Yankee Stadium. The captain was back after a nine-month layoff.
But, perhaps, only for a few innings.
Jeter singled on his first pitch of the season, then felt a tight right quadriceps and was pulled for a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning of New York’s 8-4 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Thursday.
He scored a run and went 1 for 4 with an RBI groundout as the designated hitter in his return from a broken ankle sustained in last October’s AL championship series opener. After icing the leg, the 39-year-old was headed to a hospital for a scan.
In a season thus far memorable for sidelined stars rather than sustained success, the Yankees anxiously awaited the test results.
“It’s not frustrating, yet. We’ll see. They MRI everything around here,” Jeter said. “I hope it’s not a big deal.”
Known for trying to ignore most injuries, Jeter vowed not to this time. Sort of.
“I can’t trick the tests,” he said, before adding: “I always play.”
He played through September and into October last year with what was called a bone bruise. The left ankle finally gave out in the AL championship series opener against Detroit.
“I don’t think it broke because I was 38. I think it broke because I continued to play on something that maybe I shouldn’t have,” Jeter said.
The possible setback is not what the Yankees were hoping for in a season also hampered by significant injuries to first baseman Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Francisco Cervelli.
“It’s kind of what we went through this year,” manager Joe Girardi said. “So hopefully it’s nothing, it’s just some leg tightness and he’ll be ready to go.”
Andy Pettitte (7-6) settled down after another shaky first inning to win consecutive starts for the first time since April. Lyle Overbay hit a go-ahead, two-run single in a four-run fifth against Ervin Santana (5-6) as New York overcame a 3-0 deficit and split the four-game series.
New York cut short the star shortstop’s rehabilitation assignment in the minor leagues after just four games following injuries Wednesday night to Travis Hafner and Brett Gardner, who hit for Jeter in the eighth. Jeter found out about 11 p.m. in Scranton, Pa., went back to his hotel, waited for his equipment and caught a ride to New York. He arrived about 2:30 a.m., fell asleep 90 minutes later.
And then woke up about 6:30 a.m. – only partly because of the early schedule he had been on during his rehabilitation routine.
“Couldn’t fall back asleep,” he said. “I was nervous going into the game. It’s almost like it’s opening day for me, even though we’re in – what are we in, July now? I lost track of the months.”
Jeter batted second in his first big league game since Oct. 13. He said after the initial injury he would return by opening day, then fractured the ankle again in April during his rehab and missed the first 91 games of the season.
Jeter turned on a 95 mph fastball in the first – “I had my mind made up yesterday that I was going to swing at the first pitch” – and sent a three-hopper up the third-base line that fell from Miguel Tejada’s throwing hand. The crowd of 40,381 screamed “De-rek Je-ter! De-rek Je-ter!”
Jeter’s ankle got more tests when he raced to third on Robinson Cano’s single up the middle and came home without a throw on Vernon Wells’ sacrifice fly to right.
The Yankees’ all-time hits leader grounded out in the second and again in the fifth, when second baseman Johnny Giavotella made a diving stop to prevent an RBI single. That’s when the quad tightened.
Jeter hit a sharp grounder to shortstop with the infield in during the sixth. Alcides Escobar bobbled the ball as Luis Cruz scored from third, and Jeter was thrown out as he jogged up the first-base line.
“He looked the same,” Santana said. “Very aggressive.”
Jeter had not been introduced at Yankee Stadium by Bob Sheppard’s recording in 271 days, since he sprawled onto his stomach while trying to field Jhonny Peralta’s 12th-inning grounder up the middle, immobile on the infield dirt and yelled out in pain.
“It’s awesome to have him back out there. He’s so positive,” Pettitte said. “We need his leadership ability.”
Jeter went 1 for 9 in his tuneup at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. After initially saying Jeter could play shortstop in Friday’s series opener against Minnesota, Girardi said he likely would DH again if healthy.
“I think it’s easy to say that you would expect with his age and a double break that I think he’d lose a step or two or half a step, but I think he’s moving extremely well from what I’m told,” general manager Brian Cashman said.
Girardi’s task will be preventing Jeter from playing too much.
“I think Derek would run himself out there the next 70 games if it was up to him,” Girardi said. “W(equals)e have to pick days off, and we have to pick DH days.”
Kansas City took a 3-0 lead in the first when Salvador Perez hit a two-run double and Lorenzo Cain had a sacrifice fly. The Royals’ only other run was unearned, set up by Pettitte’s throwing error on a second-inning bunt.
New York closed to 4-3 in the second when Austin Romine hit an RBI double and scored on Eduardo Nunez’s single. After Overbay’s two-out, go-ahead hit, Zoilo Almonte and Nunez followed with run-scoring singles for a 7-4 lead.
With Jeter in the lineup, his teammates seemed to relax.
“The fans were great, gave me a nice ovation,” Jeter said. “It’s been a long time.”