TAMPA, Fla. — After only two days of watching Alex Rod riguez take batting practice, Yankees hitting coach Alan Cockrell observed that he looks further along than he was last year at this time.
“We see all the quick twitch and everything that we saw last year,” Cockrell said Saturday, “and it’s even better right now.”
Rodriguez certainly looked that way in his first at-bat of spring training Thursday, homer ing on the second pitch he saw. With Carlos Beltran on base and one out in the first inning, A-Rod ripped Phillies lefthander Adam Morgan’s 1-and-0 changeup to leftfield for a 2-1 lead.
The Steinbrenner Field crowd, which had applauded his introduction loudly, gave A-Rod a sustained ovation as he rounded the bases.
“That was the last thing I was [expecting],” Rodriguez said after the Yankees’ 13-4 loss, in which he went 1-for-2 with a walk. “I hadn’t taken a swing [against] live pitching, that was my first one. That caught me by surprise. It’s been a long time since I hit a home run, but it’s fun. It felt good.”
Rodriguez, who will turn 41 July 27, led the Yankees with 33 homers last season. One of the many questions surrounding the team: Can he come close to duplicating that output?
“Look, as long as I play, I’m always going to have questions,” he said. “This is a results-oriented business. The team needs me to be productive in the middle of the lineup and bring some added value, both in the clubhouse and on the field.”
A year ago, A-Rod went 1-for-2 with a walk in his first spring training game, singling in his first at-bat, but he couldn’t be in a more different place than he was then.
When he took the field last year in Florida, it was his first game of any kind in 17 months. He had served a season-long suspension in 2014 and returned as Public Enemy No. 1 in the Yankees’ universe.
Beyond that drama, there were questions about how productive a soon-to-be 40-year-old could be with a body that seemed to be breaking down.
Needless to say, that no longer is the case.
“For me, the biggest thing is I don’t have any distractions,” A-Rod said. “I’m clear-headed. I’m coming in with a good attitude every day . . . I don’t think I can compare last spring to any spring in my career. There were so many unknowns, so many question marks.”
Now that he’s a full-time DH, Rodriguez also doesn’t have the daily barrage of questions about where and when he might play in the field. In 2015, there not only were questions about the number of grounders he was taking at third but also about how much work he was going to get at first base.
“It certainly helps,” he said, adding that his body feels significantly “better” this spring training than last. “Just having one focus, and that’s to be productive and create damage in the middle of the lineup versus having to play third base or maybe a little first base. That can be taxing, too, mentally and physically.”
Fatigue was a factor for Rod riguez last season, when he stumbled down the stretch. After entering August with a .282/.386/.544 slash line, he went .191/.300/.377. He chalked that up to “running out of gas” the last two months, something he’s determined not to let happen this season.
“I think this year the key for me is being smarter and pacing,” he said. “With me, health is of the essence. Health is key.”