A-Rod getting his sea legs under him
Let's begin with Alex Rodriguez, only because any conversation about the Yankees has to include him at some point. He expects this turbulent month to end with another trip to the postseason.
"I think it's the best thing to happen to this team because we start playing playoff-caliber baseball in the middle of September," Rodriguez said after Friday's 8-5 win over the Orioles, a victory that again put the Yankees alone in first place. "That's worked great for other teams before, but it's kind of a new thing for us."
Consider it all part of Rodriguez's "master plan," which he mentioned earlier this week in St. Petersburg without really providing much detail, other than a few passing "small ball" references. On Friday, the Yankees went big fly instead. They smacked three home runs, including No. 300 in pinstripes for A-Rod, who launched a two-run shot that chased Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen in the fifth inning.
It was Rodriguez's first homer since July 23 at Safeco Field. The very next night, Felix Hernandez put his season in limbo by nailing him on the left hand. Now would be a good time for Rodriguez to awake from hibernation, and he insisted that he was less concerned about the career milestone than getting the Yankees back on top in the AL East.
"I had no idea I had 300," Rodriguez said. "But the only numbers we're worried about right now is W's. Whatever you're going to do for the year is already done. The numbers are done. The stats are done. We're all worried about one thing, and that's winning games."
Joe Girardi made himself look smart by tinkering with the lineup. Russell Martin, batting fifth for only the third time this season, sparked the Yankees with a three-run homer in the fourth inning. Girardi started Steve Pearce at first base and he followed Martin's homer with a two-run shot.
But the Yankees would like to think that Rodriguez still has the potential to spur a team to a championship. A-Rod showed a glimmer of that Thursday with an RBI double during the Yankees' five-run eighth inning. Trying to regain your power stroke, especially after missing nearly six weeks with a broken hand, is a difficult enough task. Add to that the pressure of saving the Yankees' season, and it grows to herculean proportion.
A $25-million salary comes with no excuses, and A-Rod understands that's part of the deal. It's why Rodriguez has consistently fielded the postgame questions during the Yankees' road swoon and also done his best to splice in some positive thinking.
"It's going to come down to us, the veterans, the guys in the middle of the order, to show us the way, to get big hits and drive in big runs," Rodriguez said. "We relish this opportunity and it's the way it should be. Everybody else will follow suit."
Rodriguez, one of the more upbeat Yankees during this worrisome stretch, was in an especially playful mood after Friday's win. He showed up wearing a throwback University of Miami football jersey, with Ray Lewis' No. 52, and gave a shout-out to the Baltimore Ravens linebacker while on camera.
"He's my boy; I love Ray Lewis," Rodriguez said. "I'm in his hometown and I'm honoring the Hall of Famer." A-Rod then pointed to the camera and added, "What up, Ray!"
At age 37, Rodriguez is adjusting on the fly, and like the Yankees, relying more on veteran savvy to get by. There are no guarantees it will happen.
"I think the toughest thing to do in professional sports is win when you're expected to win," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It's a mental edge that's so hard to keep."
A-Rod knows all about expectations. After what's happened to him this season, he'll settle for helping the Yankees live up to a few.