You had every reason to dismiss Alex Rodriguez’s postgame chest-thumping session on Tuesday night, where, after another brutally unproductive game, he promised he was ready to “go off” and start hitting home runs again.
First reaction? Who was kidding whom? A-Rod hadn’t gone deep in 52 at-bats, and with only five home runs on the season, the slugger was turning into the most expensive singles hitter in Yankee history. But wouldn’t you know, Rodriguez made good on that promise only 24 hours later, hitting home runs in his first two at-bats against the Royals.
OK, so the damage was done against Will Smith, a 22-year-old rookie making his first-ever start in the big leagues. The lefthander brought with him an unremarkable 91 mph fastball and a case of nerves, making him the perfect target for the overdue Rodriguez.
Still, those two blasts — the first to left field, the second to dead-center, over 400 feet away — were powerful reminders of the threat Rodriguez used to represent. Without him as a home-run threat, and with Mark Teixeira in an inexplicable decline, the middle of the Yankees’ lineup has turned into a black hole of automatic outs, especially with runners in scoring position.
That, in itself, wouldn’t doom the Bombers, except their pitching has suffered an unforeseen slide toward mediocrity, as well. They’ve dropped from fourth to 10th in the AL in ERA from last year. The rotation, once the Yankees’ signature asset, is now just 11th in the league, and that’s even with two impressive performances in a row from Andy Pettitte.
CC Sabathia’s ERA is up nearly a run from last season. Hiroki Kuroda’s 4.56 ERA so far confirms he doesn’t have the arsenal to be a No. 2 starter in the American League. And Ivan Nova’s WHIP has ballooned from last year’s 1.33 to 1.65 — it feels like he’s always on the brink of disaster.
Even Phil Hughes’ recent improvement hasn’t addressed his fatal flaw, being unable to put hitters away. In six otherwise strong innings against Kansas City on Tuesday, Hughes was forced to throw 26 extra pitches that were fouled off, including 14 with two strikes.
There’s a solution for all this: If the Yankees can’t pitch with, say, the Rays or the Rangers, they can at least power their way to October. That was the premise of signing Rodriguez to that 10-year, $320 million contract after the 2007 season. A-Rod was coming off an MVP campaign — 54 HRs, 156 RBI — with no reason to believe he’d decline any time soon.
Yankee ownership envisioned A-Rod’s golden age lasting into his 40s, long enough to break Barry Bonds’ HR-record in pinstripes. Rodriguez wasn’t supposed to get old, or break down — he wasn’t supposed to stop hitting home runs so quickly.
But until Wednesday, Rodriguez was a billboard of decline: He’s lifting fewer fly balls than last year, he’s hitting ground balls at the highest rate of his career. Not only has Rodriguez slumped, he’s taken down the entire offense with him.
In the last 10 years, the Yankees finished in the top-2 in runs scored eight times. This year they’ve dropped to fifth, as everyone is over-swinging.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Bombers rank 26th in the majors in hitting singles with runners in scoring position. At one point this week, the Bombers were 0-for-16 with RISP, with A-Rod mired in his own 0-for-11 drought.
So the question is: What did Wednesday’s home runs mean? A-Rod is, after all, closing in on his 37th birthday, and who knows how fast his body is breaking down in the post-steroids phase of his career. We’ll need a greater sample size to quantify what Rodriguez has left, but he’s nevertheless sure Wednesday’s game was a sea-change moment.
“I said it because I’ve meant it,’’ A-Rod said of his prediction. “I was working on some things and I said it with conviction. It’s good to back it up.’’
It was his Rodriguez’s first multi-home run game since May 17, 2011, which means it’s either the law of averages evening things out, or else Rodriguez finally cracked the code on his slump. You don’t have to ask which option the front office is hoping for, because there is no Plan B for Rodriguez’s failure or Teixeira’s invisibility.
The Yankees are locked into this roster. No one’s getting fired — and that includes Joe Girardi or Brian Cashman. There are no can’t-miss prospects waiting to be called up. There’ll be no blockbuster trades, either, certainly none that will require the Yankees to part with younger players or increase payroll.
The Yankees are banking on veterans like Rodriguez, Teixeira, Pettitte, Derek Jeter and Raul Ibanez because of their history of success. The surcharge, however, is the Bombers have the oldest roster in the majors, with the average age of 31.5 years. That’s a trade-off Cashman can accept.
“I keep hearing that [the Yanks are too old] every [bleeping] year,” he said this week. “It’s déjà vu. It has come upon us so many times. We are bad right now and we will be better.”
Just to emphasize that point, Cashman addressed the team in a closed-door meeting before Tuesday’s game. It was a calculated move for a GM who generally refrains from interacting with players. But Cashman wanted the Yankees to know he trusts them, even as the landscape in the AL East has changed so radically.
Gone are the days when the Yankees could devour the Blue Jays and Orioles the way larger fish eat plankton. It’s no longer a guarantee the O’s ineptitude will enrich the Yankees by 12-14 wins. The division is being so fiercely contested the Bombers were in danger of falling into last place during the homestand.
That’s why Rodriguez’s performance against the Royals had the Yankee family hoping for a more prosperous summer. Together, they’re asking: Was it the seminal moment in the 2012 season or just an illusion?