David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Don't worry, be happy, Alex Rodriguez said, or words to that effect. On a night the Yankees avoided embarrassment by the length of Mark Teixeira's big toe, here was A-Rod, standing at his locker, assuring everyone that everything will be fine.
"I feel really good," Rodriguez said, shortly after he went a soft 1-for-3, struck out with the bases loaded and yet started the spectacular defensive play that preserved the Yankees' 3-2 win over the Royals. "My legs feel good, my body feels good. I feel like this team is going to go on a hot streak."
Why not? All the Yankees did Tuesday night was barely survive Luke Hochevar, the same pitcher they hammered for seven runs, including two homers, in their last meeting back on May 6 at Kauffmann Stadium. For Rodriguez, now making his name as a slick-fielding, light-hitting third baseman, it was a regrettable evening at the plate.
Despite the extra work with batting coach Kevin Long -- who may need rotator-cuff surgery soon from thousands of soft tosses -- Rodriguez seems like he's regressing. Not once did he scare the Royals, who in the fifth inning, with first base empty, chose to intentionally walk Robinson Cano to load them for A-Rod.
What was there to be frightened of? Rodriguez popped meekly to rightfield in his first at-bat, and later hit a spinning grounder that defied the laws of physics in spiraling away from the baffled first baseman Eric Hosmer. Then came the fifth inning.
Obviously, the Royals were looking for a force play with only one out. But loading the bases for a three-time MVP sitting on 634 home runs? If this was any other year, that wouldn't seem very smart.
"I was surprised," Joe Girardi said, "but managers are going to play the percentages. Sometimes they don't quite work out, but sometimes they do."
Up to that point, Rodriguez was a career .348 hitter with the bases loaded, and his resume included 22 grand slams in those situations. But this A-Rod, the one batting .154 with runners in scoring position, is not the same. Hochevar whiffed Rodriguez on four pitches, tying him up with a cutter on the inside corner. Asked how he felt when the Royals walked Cano, A-Rod's eyes grew wide.
"I love that," he said. "It makes me very excited. But I don't like to strike out in that situation."
If it's any consolation, Alex, you're hardly alone when it comes to imploding in pressure spots. Raul Ibañez, one of the most dangerous Yankees' to date, also whiffed as they finished 2-for-7 on the night with runners in scoring position. That inched the Yankees up to .223, which is 31 points below the AL average. Only the A's, at .219, are worse. Bottom line: the Yankees won. Whether or not they have bottomed out, however, remains to be seen.
"These are the guys that have to get it done for us," Girardi said. "These are our guys. That we're committed to, that we believe in, that we've seen do it year after year after year. We're committed to them. And they have to find a way to get it done."
What else can the Yankees do? In many ways, this team is designed to fly on autopilot. With All-Stars and potential Hall of Famers planted at most of the positions, it's not as if this roster has much flexibility, especially from a financial standpoint.
The only thing Girardi can do with slumping $25-million players like Rodriguez and Teixeira is pogo them around the lineup. But that's merely cosmetic, a manager's last-ditch effort in the hope that a change of scenery coincides with a slump's natural expiration date.
It's not going away, either. Once they did start creating traffic on the basepaths, the end result was more frustration, and prolonged booing from an increasingly restless crowd. "I think you always have to think positive in this game because there's too much failure in this game not to," Girardi said. "If you don't, it's really going to wear on you and it's going to eat at you all the time."