Jeter 1 of many stars returning from injuries

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Derek Jeter crumpled to the dirt, his season suddenly over and his future uncertain.

New York’s pennant hopes faded quickly after the star shortstop broke his ankle last October, and the offseason wasn’t much easier for the Yankees, with Jeter and his team forced into a tense recovery process that still isn’t over.

“Our big thing is not to have any setbacks now,” manager Joe Girardi said recently. “Let’s not push this too fast. Let’s get to where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there, and not hurry. But, it’s really nice to see him on the field.”

For Jeter and the Yankees, the April 1 season opener against Boston is looking more like a deadline than a day of anticipation. Jeter insists he’ll be in the lineup that afternoon, but teammate Alex Rodriguez has no chance. Then there’s closer Mariano Rivera, who is recovering from a major injury of his own after hurting his knee last May.

And the Yankees are just one club with the injury bug. All around baseball, division races may be decided not by offseason moves or midsummer surprises _ but by how well teams can keep their top players on the field.

“I think you get to the point where you can’t count on what happens with an injury, that a lot of times, it goes on a lot longer than you think,” said Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke, whose first baseman, Corey Hart, is coming off right knee surgery. “I think you just kind of move on. You expect things not to go as you would like them to.”

Trying to handicap the NL West race between the World Series champion Giants and the new-look Dodgers? A lot depends on how healthy Carl Crawford is, and whether he can rediscover the form that made him one of the game’s top left fielders.

Think Detroit is a lock to win the AL Central? What if Victor Martinez can’t rebound from his knee injury, and the Tigers go the whole season without a productive designated hitter?

What about all the changes in Toronto? The Blue Jays could be much improved _ assuming Jose Bautista is fully recovered from wrist surgery.

“All the exercises and rehab and stuff like that have come and gone, and I’ve been working my butt off to make sure I was ready to go when the season started,” Bautista said. “Worked out pretty hard at the gym, too, and now it’s time to get on the field.”

Any discussion of injury worries should begin with the Yankees, who lost Jeter to a broken left ankle in the AL championship series opener against Detroit. The Yankees went on to lose to the Tigers in four straight games, and Jeter endured what he described as a “terrible” offseason.

He’s been able to take part in spring training workouts, but his first exhibition game is probably a couple weeks away.

“I’ve already said to myself, `I’m good.’ But there’s steps along the way,” Jeter said. “Run the bases, go first to third, simulate stealing bases. Those are all things that you do anyway. I have to progress through that.”

The Yankees won 95 games last year despite losing Rivera to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He’s expected to be ready by opening day. Ace left-hander CC Sabathia also is on the mend. Sabathia is coming off arthroscopic surgery in October to remove a bone spur from his left elbow.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez isn’t even at spring training. His rehabilitation from hip surgery is taking place primarily in New York, and the third baseman is expected to be sidelined until at least the All-Star break.

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