Derek Jeter returned to the New York Yankees' lineup Thursday after missing the first three-plus months of the season. And for Yankees fans, his return couldn't have come soon enough.
The Yankees' captain missed the first 91 games of the year while recovering from two ankle fractures, the first sustained last October during the American League Championship Series. He was originally scheduled to return sometime after the All-Star break, but after just four rehab games, he was back in the pro team's starting lineup, batting second against the Royals on Thursday.
In Jeter's absence, the Yankees got off to a fantastic start, taking an early lead in the division behind some surprising performances from unexpected players.
Vernon Wells, who fell of a cliff when he signed with the Angels in 2011, started hitting like young Vernon Wells again. He notched 10 home runs by the end of May, one shy of his total from the entire previous season. Lyle Overbay, another castoff New York picked up to plug a gaping hole at first base, also exceeded expectations, as did a number of young call-ups, keeping the Yankees firmly in the playoff picture in the early going.
Yet those exceptional performances were just that, exceptions.
Wells hasn't homered since May. Overbay's on-base percentage heading into Thursday's game sat at a dismal .291.
The Yankees started the year 16-10. They've gone 33-32 since. As a team, they were 25th of 30 clubs in batting average, and 27th in slugging before Jeter's return.
Even at less than 100 percent, Jeter should improve the team's shaky offense, especially given the woeful production the Yankees have gotten from their other shortstops. Those backups have been good for a -1.1 WAR (wins above replacement) on the year. In other words, the Yankees' replacement players at short have been playing even worse than the statistical baseline for replacement players.
Even at a creaky 39 years old, Jeter should be better than that. He hit .316 last year, and actually played better as the season wore on (.308 average in the first half, .325 in the second).
Still, no matter how saintly Yankees fans may deem him, Jeter can't carry his team alone.
The Yankees are still without a number of key players. All-Star first baseman Mark Teixeira is done for the year. Third baseman Kevin Youkilis is probably out until late August. Curtis Granderson is a month away from returning. Alex Rodriguez could be back after the All-Star break — unless the league suspends him a reported 100 games over doping allegations. Things got worse on Wednesday when Brett Gardner and Travis Hafner went down with injuries.
The Yankees entered their game with the Royals at 49-42, putting them fourth in the American League East, and 2.5 games out of the second wild card spot. Typical production from Jeter alone won't help them claw their way into the postseason, but it would certainly help.
And wouldn't you know it, Jeter legged out an infield single in his first at-bat Thursday, and then came around to score the Yankees' first run. Here's the video:
(WARNING: Copious cheering from Yankees fans)