David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Joe Girardi has to wonder, doesn't he? Think of the temptation the Yankees' manager will be fighting Wednesday afternoon when he puts pen to paper on that lineup card for Game 3 of the Division Series against the Orioles.
One pinstriped angel sitting on his right shoulder, one pinstriped devil on his left, each whispering advice: one expressing affirmation, the other doubt. What would you do?
Are you really going with Alex Rodriguez in that No. 3 spot again, Joe? After what we've all seen from him not only in the first two games of this ALDS, but the past month? The feeble pop-ups, the lifeless ground balls, the strikeouts?
Put it this way: The A-Rod question is now reaching critical mass as this ALDS shifts to the Bronx after Tuesday's break in the schedule. Knowing Girardi, and his steadfast resolve to defy being told what to do by you and me, that's only making this whole Rodriguez drama even more awkward.
Girardi hedged during Tuesday's conference call with reporters, saying that the team won't do anything "that is just a knee-jerk reaction." On the other hand, the manager talked about this group being "unselfish" and doing "whatever it takes to win."
Until this point, winning and batting Rodriguez third did not appear to be mutually exclusive concepts. During A-Rod's six-week stay on the disabled list, the Yankees swooned to an 18-20 record. Upon his return, they rebounded to finish the regular season on a 19-8 run, despite his personal struggles at the plate.
Of course, the Yankees don't revolve around A-Rod, it only feels that way, and Girardi always is mindful of shifting the stars in his $200-million constellation. This season, in the No. 3 spot, Rodriguez batted .302 with 10 home runs and 27 RBIs in 68 starts, no doubt a byproduct of hitting in front of Robinson Cano.
That slipped to .236 in his 50 starts hitting cleanup, but with eight homers and 30 RBIs in 217 plate appearances, 88 fewer than when A-Rod was third. The debate now, however, is not expected to be choosing between those two spots in the lineup. Judging by his recent lapse, he could be dropped to fifth, with Cano third, Mark Teixeira fourth and Nick Swisher sixth.
It's difficult to imagine Girardi using more extreme measures, not now, in the middle of a best-of-five series. The Yankees split in Baltimore, and the loss was by the score of 3-2. If not for Robert Andino's diving stab of Rodriguez's line drive in the first inning -- which saved a run and resulted in a double play -- the night might have unfolded much differently. Cano followed right behind him with an RBI double.
"As well as Robby is swinging the bat, it's important for us to be very productive around Robby," Rodriguez said, "so they can also pitch to him."
A-Rod is a very big part of that equation, but so are Teixeira and Swisher, who both are trying to erase the ghosts of postseasons past. It also wouldn't hurt if Curtis Granderson made contact every once in a while, and the Yankees should get a boost returning to the Stadium, where they hit 138 of their MLB-best 245 home runs.
Rodriguez has provided little evidence that he's ready to bust out anytime soon, and if that's the case, then the Yankees' only real solution is to cover for him -- not to keep putting him in the same spot and expecting a different result. Maybe it took their day off for that to sink in for Girardi, who has been Rodriguez's biggest defender throughout this media-enhanced crisis.
"Our guys understand," Girardi said. "We have a veteran group that understands that we're going to do what we think is the best thing to win."
And there's the rub. Moving A-Rod out of the No. 3 spot won't guarantee success. It doesn't necessarily mean the Yankees will steamroll the O's over the next two days. And with A-Rod hanging around for five more years, at another $114 million, this decision also comes with the potential for long-term repercussions.
We're not suggesting that dropping Rodriguez this time would cause the same storm cloud in the clubhouse that it did when Joe Torre sank him to eighth during the 2006 ALDS loss to the Tigers. But there are relationships to think about -- with teammates as well as the manager -- that can be separate from the baseball part.
All of that makes for a tasty subplot to Wednesday night's pivotal Game 3 -- before the first pitch is even thrown. With apologies to Meat Loaf, what's it going to be Joe? Yes or no?