TAMPA, Fla. - Butterflies? Alex Rodriguez?
This is only the Grapefruit League, but George M. Steinbrenner Field is going to feel like a big stage Wednesday for Rodriguez, who will be watched by a sizable crowd -- and face game-caliber pitching -- for the first time in 17 months.
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"Yeah, I'll be a little nervous, for sure," Rodriguez said. "Look, I haven't been in front of our fans for a long time. I'm excited about that. I have some challenges ahead."
Rodriguez is batting second in Wednesday's game, behind leadoff hitter Didi Gregorius.
Joe Girardi insisted that he left the decision of when to play up to Rodriguez, who has done his best lately to temper expectations. But once the two agreed he would DH for the home opener, Rodriguez had two at-bats against a pitching machine in Monday's intrasquad game -- resulting in a groundout and pop-up -- before staying back from Tuesday's Clearwater trip.
"I think it's just that time," Rodriguez said. "Ready to go. Not sure how ready, but I'll give it a shot."
He was able to remain in a safe cocoon Tuesday as he worked out at Steinbrenner Field while the Yankees opened the exhibition season on the road against the Phillies. He took batting practice, fielded grounders at third base and did running drills alongside Chase Headley and Mark Teixeira.
Afterward, Rodriguez was the Yankees player most in demand by the rows of fans pressed up against the nearby chain-link fence, and he signed autographs for about 20 minutes. The reception for A-Rod has been overwhelmingly positive from the fans who have watched his workouts. That is expected to continue Wednesday.
"I'm not really surprised, necessarily," Girardi said. "He's one of the guys that has been here a long time. He's part of our championship in 2009, and I think people still understand that, and I think people are curious on how he's going to do. There's probably a lot of people that are pulling for him to do well."
Predicting A-Rod's performance at this early stage, however, is nearly impossible. Girardi is planning to use Rodriguez at DH for no more than three at-bats in Wednesday's game, and the manager will have to be somewhat cautious handling the 39-year-old going forward.
The trick for Girardi is balancing the workload Rodriguez needs to get ready by Opening Day with scheduling enough rest to keep him healthy. Rodriguez appears to be fine physically. He's moving surprisingly well during defensive drills at first base and third, showing no signs of age or his past injuries.
During his 2013 comeback from hip surgery, Rodriguez labored during his rehab stops and looked worn down by season's end. He also carried the mental weight of the initial 211-game suspension levied by then-commissioner Bud Selig.
"That was a different time," Rodriguez said. "That was a crazy time, and to be honest with you, I don't even know how I did what I did. It was like a blur. I know I hit a grand slam against San Francisco [at the Stadium on Sept. 20]. I was like, wow, that's pretty cool. I couldn't even believe that.
"But I think I'm in a much better place today. I think I'm in much better shape, and hopefully the results will be a little better."
Rodriguez had a slash line of .244/.348/.423 in 44 games during his abbreviated 2013 season, then served the 162-game suspension, a year off that he says was beneficial for his surgically repaired hips. But there also is plenty of rust left over from that extended ban, and he joked about Monday's battle with a pitching machine that fired only fastballs.
"It dominated us," Rodriguez said. "It's hard to hit. The thing is just cranking 'em in there, 90 mph, right down the middle, pop-ups and groundouts. But it won't walk you, it always works with a good pace and it dominated us. It's good for pitchers to see that."
Despite the less than dazzling results, each time A-Rod stepped to the plate Monday he was greeted by the loudest applause of the day.
"It certainly felt good," he said. "It was surprising a little bit, for sure. I didn't know what to expect."