How improbable was Alex Rodriguez's baseball season? How unlikely was it that Rodriguez, at age 40, would be back in the postseason batting cleanup for the Yankees Tuesday night at the Stadium?

To measure how far Rodriguez had to travel to get to October, one has to go back three years to the last time the Yankees and Rodriguez were in the playoffs. In that postseason, the designated hitter had been demoted to designated sitter.

In 2012, Rodriguez became the fan's scapegoat for a miserable postseason when he was dropped in the lineup, pinch hit for and then benched by Joe Girardi. On Tuesday, the same manager who demoted Rodriguez was singing his praises heading into the wild-card game against the Houston Astros.

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"I think a lot of people coming into the season would have wondered how is he going to do and is he going to be productive enough to be in a position like tonight," Girardi said before the game. "And he answered those questions. He obviously was. Played well against lefthanders. Was in the middle of our order and earned every spot."

Rodriguez earned it by playing in a way no one imagined that he could after returning from a one-year suspension to hit 33 home runs and produce 86 RBIs. He brought back star power to a clubhouse that for the most part lacked recognizable names.

In the process, he became the darling of Yankees fans who once booed his every at-bat. As disappointed as he was to be out of the playoffs after Tuesday night's 3-0 loss, Rodriguez said he couldn't have imagined a better way to return.

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"It's hard to reflect on the year right now, but it's been an incredibly fun year," he said. "I've just had a lot of fun playing with the guys. And I feel grateful for the opportunity to come back and re-establish myself as a baseball player."

The stage was set for Rodriguez to be the biggest kind of hero in the sixth. After getting only one hit off Dallas Keuchel in the first five innings, the Yankees, trailing 2-0, got singles by Didi Gregorius and Carlos Beltran that put runners on first and second with two outs. Rodriguez stepped to the plate, took a deep breath and then flied out to centerfield on the first pitch.

It was an opportunity lost for Rodriguez, who had come through numerous times this season. Rodriguez, in his 21st season, said he learned a bit about himself as a player. He takes some pride in that he played in 151 games this year,

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"I didn't think I'd be able to post up 150 times," he said, referring to the most games he's played since he appeared in 158 in 2007.

He also didn't think he'd enjoy playing as much as he did.

Said Rodriguez: "I think with everything we've done this year, we've surprised a lot of people and that's hard to do when you wear pinstripes. But I think going into this year, rewind seven months and if you told us we had an opportunity to be at home and defend our home court in a wild-card game, I think we all would have signed up for that."