A pitch over the inside of the plate, that iconic inside-out swing, and the ball sprayed to right field: to the eye, something Derek Jeter has done innumerable times over a career that stands six hits short of 3,000. But it was the way the at-bat ended on Monday night, with the Yankees' captain limping off the field and out of the lineup with a calf injury, that was anything but ordinary for a player as durable as any of his generation.
Monday's MRI results of Jeter's right calf revealed a Grade 1 strain, the least severe degree but nonetheless worrisome enough that the Yankees placed their shortstop on the 15-day disabled list Tuesday evening. And as frustrated as fans may be to endure a delay in history, the team's concern comes with just cause: muscle strains of any grade are acutely prone to reinjury if not fully healed prior to resuming full physical activity.
Among the most commonly injured sites in athletes whose sports require sudden, rapid leg acceleration, the calf refers to a pair of muscles in the back of the lower legs, the gastrocnemius and the soleus. Contraction of these muscles induce plantarflexion (downward pointing of the toes) and stabilization of the ankle. These functions in turn are important for running, walking, and jumping.
Muscle strains are usually due to a non-contact, stretch-induced injury. The gastrocnemius, which originates from the end of the thigh bone (femur) and ends in the heel bone (calcaneus), is by far the most commonly injured in calf strains. This is because of its length (crossing both the knee and ankle) and its high density of type two fast twitch muscle fibers, which generate short, powerful bursts of activity. Strains of the gastrocnemius occur due to a combination of stretch and forceful contraction, which are mechanistically similar to the cracking of a whip.
Calf strains most frequently occur in the inside (medial) aspect of the gastrocnemius muscle. In the case of a player leaving the batter's box, force is initially placed on the back leg, with the knee is extended and foot positioned with the toes facing upwards (dorsiflexion). This action puts maximal tension on the gastrocnemius muscle as the lengthened muscle is contracted at the "push off," resulting in a medial calf injury.
Recovery from a calf strain, especially for grades 1 and 2, is usually uncomplicated and achievable through conservative measures. As for other musculoskeletal injuries, the most tried-and-true approach is the RICE method: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (with some anti-inflammatory medications such as Ibuprofen thrown in to decrease inflammation). For a grade 1 strain, it is not unheard of for players to return to the playing field in a matter of days. For a grade 2 strain, a rule of thumb is 3-6 weeks. Grade 3 strains may require surgery, in which recovery may take months.
But regardless of the injury's grade, a successful return from any muscle strain is dependent upon limiting full activity until the injury has completely healed - meaning the individual no longer feels pain or swelling and has full strength in the affected area.
If you're wondering why the Yankees may be treating this more conservatively than other teams, maybe it's because they've gone through this before.
Last August, Alex Rodriguez himself suffered a Grade 1 left calf strain and sat for three games before returning. In his first at-bat back in the lineup, Rodriguez aggravated the injury while leaving the batters' box. He left the game and the team subsequently placed him on the 15-day DL.
It was a prime example of how recovery from a muscle strain is far less dependent on the injury's grade than it is the individual's ability to heal. And maybe reason enough for Yankees fans to feel a 15-day hiatus in Jeter's quest for 3,000 may be worth the wait to ensure their captain's long-term health.