By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Yankees sound nearly as impatient as Derek Jeter about when the captain will return to their lineup.
Although Jeter has played in only three games with Triple A Scranton/Wilkes Barre (Pennsylvania) in his rehab from a fractured ankle, the buzz in the Bronx is building that Jeter might join the offensively-challenged club before the four-day All-Star break, which begins on Monday.
"We don't expect it to be a real long time," Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters before Wednesday's game against the Kansas City Royals. "But I think you just have to take it day by day and see how he feels."
The shortstop, whose 3,304 hits puts him 10th on Major League Baseball's all-time hits list, has not played since fracturing his left ankle in the opening game of last October's American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers.
He broke the ankle again this spring and had to restart the rehabilitation process.
Jeter is getting antsy about returning to the diamond at Yankee Stadium and the team is watching him very carefully.
"We're judging him on a game by game basis," Girardi said. "You have to trust the people that are seeing him. Derek would have had himself here last week."
Anticipation, however, is growing.
"We are happy that Derek Jeter is coming back," 26-year-old Dominican Eduardo Nunez, who is filling in for the shortstop, told Reuters in the locker room.
"He's the captain, he's a great player. I'm still learning how to play this game to win."
Girardi warned against putting expectations too high.
"The people you worry about most, that there's too much excitement and expectation, would be the guys in that room," he said, referring to the clubhouse.
"Sure, the fans are going to be extremely excited when he comes back, and so will we. But we understand that he is one guy - we know that he can only do what he is capable of doing."
Followers of the Yankees, MLB's most successive franchise with a record 27 World Series titles, know the team is in dire need of a productive bat.
The New Yorkers, fourth in the tight American League East race six games behind division-leading Boston before Wednesday's game, ranked only 12th in the 15-team American League in runs scored (350) and 14th in team batting average (.241).
They could surely use Jeter, a lifetime .313 hitter.
When Jeter arrives, the versatile Nunez said he was prepared to slide over to play some third base and would be happy to fill in anywhere with third baseman Alex Rodriguez, rehabbing from hip surgery, working to get a belated start to his 2013 season.
"I'm happy to play anywhere, it doesn't matter to me. If he asks me for something, I'll do it," Nunez said about taking on whatever role requested by manager Girardi.
"Left, right, anywhere. If he asks me for catcher, catcher," he said, before breaking into laughter at the thought of actually donning the heavy equipment to take his lumps from behind the plate.
Jeter, expected to return to action on Wednesday night for New York's top minor league team, has gone 1-for-6 with four walks in his first three games there.
(Editing by Gene Cherry)