Yankees need a revived A-Rod

The ball still looks the same and the last time Alex Rodriguez checked he was standing 60 feet, six inches from the mound, same as it ever was. So go figure why the postseason’s most dangerous hitter has gone dead-cold in the World Series, already half-way to the most strikeouts in Fall Classic history.

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Welcome to A-Rod’s sudden disappearance against the Phillies: 0-for-8 with six strikeouts and a million red flags. All the perfect instincts he displayed against the Twins and Angels are gone, replaced by two bad games against Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez.

Rodriguez insists his slump is utterly benign — nothing more serious than the combined genius of two veteran pitchers. But A-Rod is playing in his first World Series and he’s going to need a strong bounce-back performance against Cole Hamels in Game 3 to escape the notion that he’s been freaked out by the biggest stage of his life.

The Yankees hope that Rodriguez is right when he traces the slump’s roots to “swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.” If so, he’ll have to re-learn the patience that carried him through the first two rounds, when he was 14-for-32 (.438) with five homers and a team-best 12 RBIs.

The Yankees were convinced A-Rod had finally won the decade-long war with his nerves, freed up to finally hit October fastballs to the planets. He beat Joe Nathan in the Division Series, punished Brian Fuentes in a critical moment in the League Championship Series and was otherwise so lethal that Mike Scioscia gave up altogether, walking him intentionally with the bases empty.

That left A-Rod at the doorstep of his first-ever World Series, and you didn’t have to wonder about his adrenaline surge. “This is something you dream about as a kid growing up,” Rodriguez said in the days leading up to Game 1.

The deck was stacked so heavily in A-Rod’s favor, none other than Reggie Jackson was predicting a re-writing of the record books. Not only were Rodriguez’s self-esteem and bat-speed restored, he was about to profit from the two most home run-friendly ballparks in the big leagues, Yankee Stadium and Citizens Bank Park.

To say the plan has strayed off course is putting it mildly. Rodriguez struck out three times against Lee while he was throwing a complete-game, 6-1 victory in the opener, and Martinez tacked on three more strikeouts in Game 2. Rodriguez never looked comfortable with Lee’s curveball and had just as much trouble identifying Pedro’s change-up.

If that wasn’t disturbing enough to the Yankees, A-Rod failed to handle Matt Stairs’ hard one-bouncer in the second inning Thursday night, allowing it to whistle under his glove to give the Phillies a 1-0 lead.

The Yankees consider themselves lucky that A.J. Burnett didn’t overreact to the momentary setback. Not only did the right-hander shake off another postseason meltdown, he flourished, striking out nine en route to a 3-1 win.

The Bombers clawed back into this Series for two irrefutable reasons: Burnett out-pitched Martinez and Joe Girardi bypassed his entire corps of set-up relievers in order to give Mariano Rivera a six-out save.

Clinging to a two-run lead, who else could Girardi trust? The Yankees didn’t do much with Pedro, but it was enough. Mark Teixeira refused to be fooled by one of Martinez’s change-ups and Hideki Matsui took advantage of a curveball that had too much of the plate. Both resulted in solo home runs, and both temporarily masked A-Rod’s invisibility.

The question, of course, is how long the Yankees can survive without a valid contribution from their cleanup hitter. Johnny Damon spoke for everyone in the clubhouse when he said, “we definitely have to pick (A-Rod) up” as Hamels is preparing a long night of illusory change-ups, his primary asset.

According to Fangraphs.com, last year’s Series MVP throws his change almost one out of every three pitches. If the Phillies have learned anything about A-Rod so far, it’s that he can be exploited by an expanded strike zone — or, put more simply, he’ll chase bad pitches once he starts pressing.

The signature of a good change-up is that it’s rarely a strike by the time it lands in the catcher’s glove, so it’ll be Rodriguez’s challenge to lay off what looks good one moment, but turns to poison an instant later. One factor in his favor is that Hamels isn’t the threat he used to be: the National League’s OPS against him in 2009 was almost 100 points higher than it was in 2008.

Then again, A-Rod’s struggles usually have less to do with who’s pitching than what’s going on in his head. In past years, eight difficult at-bats would’ve been enough to ruin Rodriguez for all of October. This year, however, he has the memory of the Division and League Championship Series to reassure him.

At least that’s what the Yankees are hoping.

“Alex has been killing the ball,” said Derek Jeter. “To me, it’s kind of hard to say it’s a slump when you’re hitting against Lee and Pedro. It’s hard to over-analyze that.”

For his part, Rodriguez seems just as upbeat as he was a week ago, laughing and joking with the rest of the Yankees as they went through a one-hour workout at Citizens Bank Park on Friday. Like the rest of his teammates, A-Rod spent the day mocking the Yankees’ pitchers taking batting practice.

But Game 3 looms, and with it the reality that the Yankees have already lost the home-field advantage to the National League champs. If the Bombers intend to dethrone the Phillies, they’ll need A-Rod to crush a few of those change-ups, not to mention a lingering ghost or two.