Don’t let the last out of Sunday afternoon’s loss to the Orioles fool you. Eduardo Nunez can help this Yankees team win.
He did on Saturday, and he nearly did again today.
After missing 56 games with a strained left oblique, Nunez returned to the Yankees on Saturday to tackle the same task he was charged with back in April: replace the injured Derek Jeter. His second-stint debut redeemed his first, as Nunez displayed the offensive spark – and, of course, the impulsive hustle – that was expected from him early in the season.
In the second inning Saturday, Nunez came to the plate with the bases loaded and none out. It wasn’t quite baptism by fire, as Nunez has been there before, but to stroll into a Big League at bat for the first time in 56 games and see the bags full is to fish for the first time in months and watch a school of skipjack tuna surround your boat. Indeed, it’s enough to make a batter or a fisher dive right in.
But Nunez, the poised hitter that he is, kept his feet in his shoes and let the first pitch go by. On Tillman’s second offering, he lifted a fly ball to left center field, deep enough that even Lyle Overbay thought he could tag up from second and go to third. Overbay was thrown out on the play, but Zoilo Almonte scored from third as Nunez trotted back to the dugout, his first at-bat in two months a ripe success.
In the fifth, it was Nunez setting the table. After ripping a line drive to right field to lead off, Nunez ultimately came around to score on an Ichiro infield single to second. Between his speed from third and Ichiro’s from the batter’s box, there wasn’t a play to made for the Orioles’ defense.
An inning later, Nunez put the final touches on an emphatic return to the lineup. With Overbay on second and the score tied at 4, Nunez rapped a Tillman fastball up the middle and into center field, just hard enough to get through, just slow enough to allow Overbay to score. That’s a balance as tenuous as they come.
Today, Nunez was again in line for the game-winning RBI when he scolded a line drive to left in the second inning that scored Almonte from third. Had left fielder Chris Dickerson not hauled in the ball, Lyle Overbay may have come around to score too made it to second. A rare blown save by Mariano Rivera spoiled New York’s bid for a series sweep, but not before Nunez picked up another single in the fourth to cement the fact that, yes, he is back.
It’s a welcome sight for the fans. That much was evident when Nunez walked to the plate for the first time Saturday and drew loud cheers from the crowd. (And now he joins Derek Jeter as the only players ever, that I can recall, who have been cheered by a Yankee Stadium crowd while hitting at or below .200). Though he didn’t inspire much enthusiasm in his first 27 games before injury, the fans know what he brings to the table. And they know, despite commendable cameos by Jayson Nix and Reid Brignac, that Nunez is the team’s best option at shortstop after Derek Jeter.
Especially on this team. For if the Yankees’ many first-half weaknesses were whittled down to one, the lack of a strong right-handed bat would rise to the surface. From the left side of the plate, Brett Gardner and Ichiro provide contact, Travis Hafner and Overbay provide pop, and Robinson Cano provides everything else. But from the right side, the Yankees are anemic. With Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and the switch-hitting Teixeira sidelined with injuries, Joe Girardi’s most reliable right-handed hitter has been…well, you choose. Chris Stewart? Vernon Wells? Jayson Nix?
Not exactly the kind of guys that strike fear in a pitcher’s heart.
With Nunez now back in tow, Girardi can pencil in a right-handed bat without compromising the team’s ability to score runs. And Nunez, more so than Stewart, Wells or Nix, is a flexible hitter with the versatility to bat almost anywhere in the lineup. In his young career, he has hit in the 2nd, 6th, 7th and 8th spots in the batting order.
He won’t hit many homeruns, but his slashing swing is full of line drives. And with his speed, a single can quickly become a double, a double quickly a triple. With Gardner and Ichiro now locked into the 1 and 2 spots in the lineup, and Nunez presumably safe in the bottom third, the Yankees’ batting order turns over nicely. That’s three players, hitting in close proximity to each other, who wreak havoc on the base paths.
Unfortunately for Nunez, the Yankees have just seven more games before the All Star break, at which point Jeter is expected to return. Presumably, this puts Nunez out of a job.
But that decision, Girardi will tell you, is in the kid’s hands. Even if Jeter expects to play in all 675 innings of all 75 games in the second half, because why wouldn’t he, there will be days when the Captain needs a rest. (And, accordingly, a barbed-wire fence in the dugout to keep him off the field.) The same goes for Rodriguez, though a couple pretty girls near the dugout should be restraint enough for him. On these days, it will be Nunez who gets the call.
If he can provide the same kind of cover he did last year, when he hit .292 over 38 games, he will enable Girardi to give his aging stars the days off that they need. Not to diminish what the young shortstop can do, but the rest he affords Jeter and Rodriguez may be as important as anything he does on the field.
Nunez won’t look at it this way though, because he knows he can make his own difference. He has that type of unbridled confidence.
And chances are, as Nunez continues to hit, continues to gallop down the first-base line, his helmet flying off his head like a visor in the wind, the fans won’t look at it this way either.
They’ll begin to wonder when he’ll play next, and why everyone else reaches first base, batting helmet secured.