New York Yankees infielder Eduardo Nunez sat inside the Charleston RiverDogs dugout along the first base line and couldn’t help but smile.
It had been six years since Nunez had last stepped foot inside in the RiverDogs dugout, and to be honest, the Yankees utility infielder thought that he’d never return to Riley Park after getting promoted to High-A ball during the 2007 season.
But an injury early in the season and rainy weather in the Tampa area conspired to send the former Charleston RiverDogs shortstop back to the Lowcountry.
And Nunez was just fine with that.
The last time Nunez, 26, played for the RiverDogs during parts of the 2006 and 2007 seasons, he was a quiet 19-year-old kid trying to find his way through professional baseball. Nunez said the time he spent in Charleston helped prepare him for the big leagues and was crucial in his development.
“I think this is where I learned how to be a professional,” said Nunez, who played in 181 games over two seasons for the RiverDogs. “I enjoyed playing here. The fans were always so supportive and nice to me. Coming back has kind of given me a chance to say thank you. I never thought I’d ever play here, but this was a fun place to play.”
Nunez and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez were in Charleston Tuesday night as part of rehab assignment. Rodriguez had offseason hip surgery and had not played all season, while Nunez strained his left oblique and was put on the disabled list back in early May.
With Derek Jeter still recovering from a broken ankle he suffered during last year’s playoffs, Nunez was the Yankees’ opening day starter at shortstop. He had hoped this would be a breakout season for him and the first step toward replacing the Yankees captain at shortstop.
Since being called up by the Yankees in 2010, Nunez has been used to rest Jeter and Rodriguez at shortstop or third. Over four seasons, Nunez has played in 207 games and has a .261 batting average. In 2012, he hit a career high .292 in 38 games.
“It’s never a good time to get injured, but with Derek and Alex out, I was going to be on the field almost every day,” Nunez said. “It was an opportunity for me to show what I could do.”
Nunez began to feel some pain in his rib cage after nearly every swing of the bat in early May. He was placed on the 15-day disabled list on May 12, hopeful to return by Memorial Day, but the pain persisted and he was transferred to the 60-day disabled list.
Nunez took his first swings in a competitive game Tuesday night for the RiverDogs. The Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic native had two hits in three at bats against the Rome Braves and said he felt no pain after the game.
“It was good to be back out there,” Nunez said. “I felt pretty good. It was good to get a couple of hits. My timing is still a little off, but this is the first step toward getting back to New York. Hopefully, a couple of more games and I’ll be fine. I haven’t played for eight weeks, so I’d like to get as many at bats as I can before I go back up.”
Remembering what it was like as young professional player, Nunez said he’s already taken time to talk with some of the RiverDogs teammates.
“When I was coming up, the veteran guys would talk to me and help me out,” Nunez said. “Jeter and (Robinson) Cano were always good to me and always trying to help me get better. Now, it’s my turn to pass that knowledge onto the young guys here.”