NEW YORK -- Brett Gardner's season appeared to be finished after nine games when he underwent surgery on his injured right elbow in July, but the Yankees are prepared to activate the outfielder from the disabled list next week if his rehab continues without any setbacks.

The Yankees do not anticipate Gardner being able to swing a bat for them this season, but they envision using him in pinch-running situations and possibly as a defensive substitute.

"This is a guy that we don't expect to be able to hit for us, but is it possible he could do some other things? Yes," manager Joe Girardi said before Saturday's game against Tampa Bay. "We would have to think about, 'Do we think it's safe for him to play defense?' Pinch-running might be the first step."

Gardner has not appeared in a game since April 17, when he strained his right elbow while diving for a fly ball in left field. Gardner suffered three setbacks in his attempt to return before undergoing arthroscopic surgery to remove inflamed tissue in his non-throwing elbow.

The 29-year-old Gardner said he felt 100 percent healthy about two weeks ago, when he began shagging fly balls during batting practice. He practiced bunting and ran the bases on Saturday and will continue to do so in the coming days.

Gardner said he will begin sliding into bases headfirst on Sunday, and Girardi said there is no fear that Gardner will reinjure his elbow doing so because his arm will be extended, not tucked under his body, as it was when he got injured. Girardi was more concerned about the potential for another injury if Gardner plays defense, but he said the Yankees will consider that possibility.

Gardner said he would not hesitate to dive if playing the field, and he might start swinging a bat next week, although the Yankees are not counting on using him as a hitter for the rest of this season.

"Obviously, I won't know how I feel until I start swinging a bat and taking BP on the field," Gardner said, "but as far as pinch-running, playing defense, playing catch, ground balls, line drives, fly balls, diving for a ball -- I don't have any reservations about any of that."

Ichiro's leadoff assignment a temporary one

NEW YORK -- Ichiro Suzuki led off for the Yankees on Saturday against the Rays, and manager Joe Girardi said it was a one-day move prompted by Ichiro's career numbers against Tampa Bay starter James Shields.

Ichiro entered the game with a .304 (14-for-46) average in his career against the right-handed Shields, with a double, a triple and a homer. Derek Jeter, who was a .293 (24-for-82) hitter against Shields, slid down to the No. 2 spot in the order.

Girardi said that a desire to split up left-handed hitters in the bottom of the order also factored into the decision, with Ichiro moving from the bottom third of the lineup to the leadoff spot for only the second time since the Yankees acquired him from Seattle on July 23.

Girardi prefers to see positives Nunez brings

NEW YORK -- Derek Jeter was once again in the Yankees' starting lineup as the designated hitter on Saturday against the Rays, with manager Joe Girardi attempting to limit the workload of the 38-year-old, who is playing with a bone bruise in his left ankle. Girardi said that Jeter would likely not return to shortstop until Tuesday at the earliest.

Eduardo Nunez started his third consecutive game in Jeter's absence at shortstop, where Nunez made two strong throws deep in the hole to record outs during Friday's 6-4 loss to the Rays but also committed a run-scoring error in the ninth inning.

"The focus will be the error, and I understand that," Girardi said. "That's the play he didn't make, but you look at the plays he did make, and he made a lot of good plays for us the past two days. That's what we need to focus on and what he needs to focus on."

Nunez appeared at shortstop, second base, third base, left field and right field earlier this season for the Yankees, but he played shortstop only after being optioned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, where he and the Yankees believe his defense improved with his focus on only one position.

"I don't know if he got distracted by the runner a little bit or didn't get in front of it," Girardi said of Nunez's error on Friday. "To me, it looked like he might have gotten distracted by the runner, which is something you can't do. You just have to focus on the baseball."