Tuesday June 14th, 2011

NEW YORK -- The cameras will continue charging, the anticipatory DJ3K silicone bracelets will continue selling and the suspense will continue building because Derek Jeter's quest to become the first Yankee with 3,000 hits has been put on hold for at least 15 days. New York placed Jeter, who has 2,994 hits, on the disabled list Tuesday after he suffered a Grade I strain of his right calf the previous night.

While Yankees fans with tickets to Wednesday and Thursday night's games with the Rangers are no doubt disappointed that they won't see Jeter get his milestone hit in the Bronx this week, proceeding with caution is absolutely the best course of action for the Yankees.

Hoopla aside, the Yankees are 2 ½ games behind the surging Red Sox, leaders of the American League East after winning nine straight, and can't afford to trot out an injured leadoff hitter -- particularly one, like Jeter, who is already having a season (.260 batting average, .324 on-base percentage) that is subpar by his high standards -- while keeping their eyes on the real goal: a playoff berth.

In fact, manager Joe Girardi made clear before Tuesday night's game that Jeter's chase of 3,000 would not affect the team's decision to place him on the DL.

"Not at all, no," Girardi said, before adding that the milestone is "eventually going to happen, so that has no factor in it for me."

It wasn't a factor for Jeter, either, who said "I don't like not to play, even if I'm going for 3,000 hits or 100 hits."

Ever the competitor, Jeter acknowledged that he was trying to persuade the club to let him rest it in hopes he could return in a few days or a week, rather than a mandatory 15 days.

"Obviously, if it's up to me, I'd rather not," Jeter said. "The soreness, I don't have a problem with that. I just don't want to make it worse.

Before the DL stint was announced -- remarkably only the fifth in his legendary 17-year career -- Jeter met with the media and likened the soreness in his calf to the aftermath of being hit by a pitch. But he also, to his credit, admitted ignorance with dealing this type of injury because he had never had it before.

Thus the Yankees decided to play it safe, with Girardi weighing not only Jeter's performance if hampered by injury, but also the downside of his starting shortstop possibly worsening the strain by returning prematurely.

"What I don't want to happen is to lose him for a week, play him for a day, and then lose him for two more weeks," Girardi said.

Nipping such concerns in the bud was the best course of action, particularly with the Yankees beginning a six-game interleague road trip at National League ballparks on Friday. Girardi wouldn't be able to DH Jeter and would need his full bench at his disposal for the inevitability of pinch-hitting for his pitcher and making double switches.

Girardi demurred when asked if Jeter's play this season -- as in, for example, his .260 batting average -- would factor into the DL decision. Of course the manager would never publicly affirm such an idea, but one wonders if the Yankees would have been more willing to wait a week before making a decision had Jeter been more productive at the plate.

While Jeter's backup at shortstop, Eduardo Nuñez, who turns 24 tomorrow, is off to an even worse start offensively (.214 average, .254 OBP), he is at this point a better defensive option at shortstop. And because he's not the Yankees captain, Girardi won't feel the same obligation to bat Nuñez leadoff as he does with Jeter.

Leftfielder Brett Gardner is already the better leadoff option against righthanded pitchers. Though he struggled in the season's first four weeks, Gardner has a .336 average and .421 OBP in 45 games since April 26. Against lefty pitchers, Jeter certainly remains a terrific leadoff option (.299 average, .405 OBP), but perhaps when he does return to the lineup, Girardi can use his injury as an excuse for re-evaluating Jeter's daily placement in the batting order, as his splits against righties (.246 average, .294 OBP) aren't nearly as good.

Taking a conservative approach with this injury is also the right decision for the sake of the milestone. It would have been unfair to Jeter for him to battle through a lingering injury on his way to such a cherished mark that has only been accomplished by 27 other hitters. Given the public attention surrounding Jeter's quest for 3,000, his having to manage pain at the same time could have slowed him down.

Jeter will be eligible to play again on Wednesday, June 29, the second of three home games against the Brewers. Barring a minimum DL stay and consecutive three-hit games, Jeter will most likely reach 3,000 in one of the Yankees' next two series, across town at the Mets' Citi Field or in Cleveland.

"I guess the timing wasn't very good," Jeter said of the injury.

No, it wasn't. Reaching 3,000 hits and moving on with this season swiftly would have been better. But even worse would have been putting the milestone above either his health the rest of the summer or the team's play in the next two weeks.

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