David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BOSTON - As the Yankees teeter on the razor's edge of this wild-card race, Alex Rodriguez figures he's one unlucky step away, maybe two, from an early winter. Once that left hamstring pops, it's over for A-Rod, and he's going to take every precaution to prevent that from happening.
"I'm just trying to go where it doesn't blow out," Rodriguez said after Friday night's 8-4 loss to the Red Sox at Fenway Park. "That's pretty much it."
Believe what you will about A-Rod's alleged involvement with Biogenesis and the trappings of his 211-game ban. Maybe his word doesn't mean as much to some in the wake of Major League Baseball's PED investigation of the Miami-based clinic.
But anyone who's watched Rodriguez hobble on a sore left hamstring this past week has to realize that he definitely is telling the truth now.
In the seventh inning, when the Yankees rallied to tie the score at 4, A-Rod should have scored the third and go-ahead run from first on Robinson Cano's two-run double that skidded all the way to the bullpen wall in right-centerfield. With Chris Stewart windmilling his arms furiously as he approached the plate, Rodriguez sputtered into third base and stopped cold.
If it were anyone else -- shoot, even the Yankees' new super-sized reliever, Mike Zagurski -- there would have been no excuse for not scoring. But not A-Rod, who's running as if he needs a new transmission.
"It looks like he's missing a couple of gears," Joe Girardi said.
Rodriguez has grinded through them by now, and he's leaking oil. Ever since he felt another twinge in that hamstring Tuesday night in Baltimore and had to be lifted in that game, Girardi has relegated him to DH, and it appears he won't try him again at third until maybe Tuesday in Toronto at the earliest.
"It's getting a little better," A-Rod said. "You've got to be careful with the hamstring, though."
Girardi doesn't need to be told twice. His tattered roster lost another key member Friday when Brett Gardner was diagnosed with a grade 1 oblique strain -- the least severe, but serious enough to keep him out of the lineup for the rest of the regular season. Girardi mentioned the possibility of using him as a pinch runner down the line, and if the Yankees make the playoffs, he could return in October.
But for now, Girardi has to keep his remaining impact players upright, and A-Rod is on the Yankees' A-list, wobbly hamstring and all. Just the presence of Rodriguez in the two-hole is critical to keep the lineup at least looking dangerous, and removing him could result in a fatal blow to the Yankees' fragile postseason chances.
Girardi appears to be walking a fine line in deciding how useful Rodriguez can be in his current state. "It's a concern of mine, yeah," Girardi said.
If A-Rod were a touch better physically, there's no doubt he'd be at third base instead of Eduardo Nuñez, and that trickle-down effect led to the Red Sox's four-run rally in the seventh. When Nuñez couldn't corral Shane Victorino's leadoff single, Girardi lifted Hiroki Kuroda and the bullpen imploded.
Despite the scorer's decision to give Victorino a hit, Girardi thought Nuñez should have grabbed it. "It's a play he can make," he said. "But it's a tough play."
Would A-Rod have snared it and helped stifle that rally before it could begin? Perhaps. His mobility is limited, but Rodriguez's defensive instincts are far superior to Nuñez's, and it's an option Girardi doesn't have for at least the next couple of days. Instead, Girardi is looking across the field at a Red Sox team that is operating with lethal efficiency as it closes fast on an AL East title -- and the Yankees are spewing smoke as they lurch toward the finish.
"Let me tell you something. They got a very good team over there," said Rodriguez, moments after shedding the bulky ice pack from his left thigh. "This is a hard team to measure yourself against right now."
Especially on one leg. While trying to protect it at all costs.