Questions abound about A-Rod's health

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New York Yankees Alex Rodriguez takes batting practice New York Yankees Alex Rodriguez takes batting practice on the field during a workout at Yankee Stadium. (Sept. 29, 2011) Photo Credit: Thomas A. Ferrara

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Anthony Rieber Newsday columnist Anthony Rieber

Anthony Rieber has been at Newsday since Aug. 31, 1998 and in his current position since 2004.

Joe Girardi was as definitive as Joe Girardi can be:

"I have no doubt that he's healthy enough to play every day."

The subject was Alex Rodriguez -- the same Alex Rodriguez who was scratched from Wednesday night's Yankees season finale because of a sore right knee. The same Alex Rodriguez who played in 18 of a possible 37 games after returning from knee surgery on Aug. 21 and suffering a thumb sprain that continues to linger.

"If [Wednesday] night was a postseason game, I'm playing him," Girardi said. "That's the bottom line."

Well, Friday night is a postseason game -- the opener of the ALDS against the Tigers -- and Girardi is playing him.

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But there has to be concern about whether Rodriguez can hold up through the entire postseason, if it lasts as long as the Yankees hope. Knees don't all of a sudden get better with increased physical activity. And if you think the thumb won't be a factor, try slamming yours in a car door, because that's apparently what it's been like for A-Rod.

Two years removed from the monster 2009 postseason that wiped away his reputation as a choke artist, Rodriguez heads into these playoffs as a question mark not because of his head but because of two other body parts.

"My feeling is he'll be healthy," Girardi said. "But if he's not, that's a big player out of our lineup or a big player that's not at the top of his game."

Less definitive, right? And probably more accurate. Girardi can't really be sure if A-Rod is going to be healthy enough to play every inning of every game at third base. How could he?

The facts are this: At age 36, Rodriguez hit .276 with 16 homers and 62 RBIs in 99 games. On Wednesday, when it would have behooved him to have gotten a few at-bats to get ready for Justin Verlander, Rodriguez didn't even DH.

"The [artificial] turf is not really my best friend," Rodriguez said. "I was going to get one or two at-bats, and we just decided after my work with Kevin Long it was probably wiser to get off the turf."

Said Girardi: "This time of year, we had to be somewhat cautious with some of our players. I would hate to lose a player on the last day of the season."

The Yankees were built to withstand a diminished A-Rod during the long regular season; their AL East crown is proof of that. But it's no coincidence that the Yankees' lone World Series title in the A-Rod Era came in 2009, when Rodriguez hit six home runs and had 18 RBIs in the postseason.

"This is the most fun part of the year," Rodriguez said. "It's a new season. That's one of the great things about playing in New York. It's all about what happens late, and especially in October."

Last year, when the Yankees lost to the Rangers in a six-game ALCS, Rodriguez hit .190 with zero home runs. He wasn't the main culprit -- the pitching staff was -- but he was conspicuous in his offensive absence.

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The last time the Yankees met the Tigers in the ALDS, in 2006, A-Rod was so lost that Joe Torre dropped him to eighth in the order. Asked what he remembers about that series, Rodriguez hesitated before saying, "It's a long time ago."

A-Rod's importance in this year's lineup will be minimized slightly if Girardi bats him fifth against the Tigers' all-righthanded rotation, as expected. The Tigers have advance scouts like everyone else, though. Key at-bats have a way of finding slumping players, as teams are more apt to pitch around the hot bats in the playoffs.

If anything, A-Rod could benefit from being under the radar as the postseason begins. Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano have been the Yankees' best offensive performers. Derek Jeter has been reborn in the second half. Jorge Posada is the new people's choice.

A-Rod the afterthought? Like the Yankees being the underdogs this year, the notion is kind of laughable. You know the spotlight will somehow find A-Rod, especially if he produces the way he did in 2009. If he's physically able.

Is he?

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"I'm getting there," he said. "No one really cares about that. Everybody on the field [today] is going to have some bumps and bruises. Bottom line is we're all good enough to play here and you've just got to play. There's no excuses. All that is . . . Nobody cares about that."

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