David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO — It seems as though the hardest ball Alex Rodriguez has hit lately is the one that caromed off his left foot Tuesday night, and out of concern for that bruised area, Joe Girardi relegated him to DH duties when he rejoined the lineup Thursday night at Rogers Centre.
The plan is for Rodriguez to return to third base at some point during this series against the Blue Jays, possibly as early as Friday night. As the Yankees inch toward the playoffs, however, the bigger question is whether this watered-down version of A-Rod should continue to be this team's No. 3 hitter.
At full strength, Rodriguez is a natural fit there, and it's the perfect location to break up the lefthanders, with Ichiro Suzuki now comfortable in the No. 2 spot and the improving Robinson Cano at cleanup. But A-Rod's lack of consistent pop this season, especially down the stretch, is making the middle of the Yankees' order much less intimidating -- rather ordinary, in fact, as it was in Thursday night's 6-0 loss to the Blue Jays.
Heading into the game, Rodriguez's .458 slugging percentage ranked 20th in the majors among No. 3 hitters with a minimum of 250 plate appearances. That was right behind the Athletics' Josh Reddick (.460) and considerably below David Wright, whose .488 ranked 13th. By comparison, Miguel Cabrera was No. 1 with a .605 percentage.
A-Rod still may be an impressive brand name, but there doesn't seem to be much else inside the flashy packaging. He has the No. 13 on his back and the ridiculous numbers on his resume, but where's the capability to carry a team on occasion?
That's gone missing, and Girardi seems resigned to writing his name down in the same spot out of habit -- or deference -- and expecting it suddenly will turn around.
"I'm still comfortable he can hit third in a major-league lineup," Girardi said. "He's an on-base guy, too. He's going to take his walks and get on base in front of Robby [Cano]. I like that as well."
Then Girardi must have been thrilled Thursday night because Rodriguez did reach base twice. He drew a two-out walk in the first inning, and in the ninth, Darren Oliver grazed him with a pitch during the Yankees' failed rally. Otherwise, A-Rod struck out looking to open the fourth and flied out to strand Derek Jeter in the sixth.
Since his last home run on Sept. 14, Rodriguez is batting .222 (10-for-45) without an extra-base hit in 11 games. He has struck out 16 times, walked three times and driven in four runs.
When asked after Thursday night's loss if he is getting anxious about chipping in, Rodriguez denied that is the case.
"This is not tennis or golf," he said, emphasizing the need for a team-wide effort and "passing the baton" down the lineup. "I'm going to do what I can, just like I did tonight. You leave it all out there. That's all you can do."
Rodriguez managed to get the ball in the air once Thursday night, but not far enough or hard enough to do damage, which too often has been the case.
Girardi tries to play it cool with what has turned into a daily interrogation on the subject of A-Rod, but he'd like to see some different results, too.
"I think for the team, it's real important," Girardi said. "We do need to get him going. When he's rolling, our lineup can be really potent."
Rodriguez is hardly rolling at the moment, and that makes the Yankees gaze longingly toward Tampa, where Mark Teixeira is working his way back, presumably by the end of the regular season. Once Teixeira arrives, that will give Girardi more options, but is it too bold a move to mess with Rodriguez this late in the season?
Joe Torre did irreparable damage to both his relationship with Rodriguez and the Yankees when he chose to drop A-Rod to eighth in that infamous Division Series loss to the Tigers in 2006.
Girardi has given no indication that he'd be willing to move Rodriguez, who has batted lower than fourth only once this season -- and that was in the fifth spot.
But what happens in these final six games could give him something else to think about.