David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BALTIMORE - Other than in the dugout during games, a mostly ceremonial duty, Derek Jeter is rarely seen these days. Sometimes Jeter will pass by in the clubhouse, but it's usually a quick trip between his locker and the trainer's room, which has become a second home for the Yankees' captain.
But the player many pegged as a pariah, Alex Rodriguez, has moved back in with the Yankees as if he were a forgiven spouse as he awaits the decision on his 211-game PED suspension. Not only that, Rodriguez -- propped by two surgically repaired hips -- has become a productive, everyday member of the lineup.
Imagine that. The Yankees now consider Jeter, hobbled by his troublesome left ankle, too much of a liability during the stretch of games that will make or break their season. A-Rod? They don't dare sit him.
Before Tuesday night, when Rodriguez returned for a second straight turn in the No. 2 hole, he had a slash line of .375/.483/.625 in his last seven games. Since his Aug. 5 return, A-Rod has an .861 OPS in 30 games, and remarkably has started at third base in all but three of them.
That's not like Joe Girardi, who prefers to rest his 38-year-old players as frequently as possible, and often enough to draw criticism for it. But the manager also knows that riding Rodriguez is the Yankees' only chance, however remote, at getting into the postseason. In his private moments, away from the TV cameras, Rodriguez has to smile to himself about that. He's indispensable to the Yankees now, despite the back-page warfare of a month ago, and no one could have anticipated this.
"I can't say yes," Girardi said before Tuesday night's game at Camden Yards. "I wasn't sure what we were going to get coming back from the second hip surgery, but it's been pretty good."
With A-Rod, who did leave the game with a tight hamstring, it's never all good, and the Yankees saw that again Tuesday night. In the third inning, Rodriguez ripped an RBI double off Orioles righthander Miguel Gonzalez. In the eighth, A-Rod smacked a Kevin Gausman fastball down the leftfield line for a leadoff double, then scored the tying run.
The flip side was earlier, in the fifth inning, when A-Rod made the mistake of cutting off a throw to the plate that had a chance to nail the go-ahead run. After Nick Markakis flew out to leftfield, Alfonso Soriano delivered a throw to the plate that appeared to be on line and maybe on time to get Brian Roberts.
But Rodriguez snatched it to the left of the pitcher's mound, leaving both Soriano and Chris Stewart stunned. Stewart stood at the plate and held out his arms wide in a "What the heck?" gesture, showing up A-Rod in the process. Soriano, a bit more restrained, pumped his arm in frustration.
That's the A-Rod we've come to know over the years, prone to those head-scratching lapses in judgment. It's also what the Yankees don't get from a functioning Jeter, whose unfailing ability to do the right thing is missed in these tight games down the stretch. But Jeter isn't a functioning shortstop at the moment.
The Yankees won't even let him on the field during batting practice and it doesn't sound as if they're going to ease up any time soon.
The Yankees already have been through this with Jeter, who tried to play in Grapefruit League games with a sore ankle back in March and suffered another fracture.
Even though they don't believe Jeter suffered a serious setback this time around, neither Girardi nor Brian Cashman is ready to gamble with his long-term health. After what Jeter has dealt with this season -- including two previous trips to the DL with other leg injuries -- it's the right call to be overly cautious.
"I just think it's complicated, obviously, with the foot," Cashman said. "He clearly was not moving as well as he was earlier. He just needs a timeout."
Curious choice of words there. A-Rod was supposed to be the punished kid in the corner, left alone to serve his suspension. Instead, it's Jeter on the outside looking in.