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SportsColumnistsAnthony Rieber

Alex Rodriguez reduced to leading the cheers from the dugout

Alex Rodriguez looks on from the bench during

Alex Rodriguez looks on from the bench during Game 5 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium. (Oct. 12, 2012) Credit: Jim McIsaac

Alex Rodriguez has never in his life been the kid who was picked last.

on Friday, he was the kid who wasn't picked at all.

Joe Girardi's decision heard 'round the world -- pinch hitting for A-Rod in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Orioles -- morphed into Rodriguez's benching for the deciding fifth game.

It was a shocking turn of fortune for a player who started the ALDS as the Yankees' No. 3 hitter and finished it having gone 2-for-16 with nine strikeouts.

In six short days, Rodriguez became Top Step A-Rod. As in standing on the top step of the dugout and cheering on his teammates, as he did during the Yankees' series-clinching 3-1 victory over the Orioles.

Top Step A-Rod performed his duties perfectly. He blamed himself for the benching before the game, saying: "It's never about Joe. I always have to look in the mirror." And he seemed genuinely happy for his teammates when they did well.

He was one of the first reserves -- ouch -- out of the dugout after CC Sabathia fielded a comebacker and threw it to first for the final out, sending the Yankees into the ALCS against the Tigers beginning Saturday night.

Rodriguez tried to party like it was 2009 in the postgame clubhouse, where a champagne celebration seemed more perfunctory than passionate. The Yankees probably were more relieved than thrilled about finally shedding the Orioles, who hung on their pinstriped pants legs like a demanding toddler all year and wouldn't let go until the 23rd game between the teams was done.

The turning moment of the low-scoring series was the tying home run hit by Raul Ibañez when he batted for Rodriguez in the ninth inning of Game 3. Ibañez went on to hit the game-winning home run in the 12th inning of that game and drove in the first run of Game 5 with a fifth-inning single.

On Thursday, with the seal already broken, Girardi used Eric Chavez to bat for Rodriguez in the 13th inning of Game 4. He lined out for the final out.

Then Chavez replaced Rodriguez in the starting lineup in Game 5 against righthander Jason Hammel, against whom A-Rod had been 8-for-22 with four homers and nine RBIs. But his last homer against Hammel came in 2008.

A year later, Rodriguez had a postseason for the ages as the Yankees won the World Series. Now he's a 37-year-old with a creaky hip -- and five years and $114 million left on his contract.

After the game, Girardi wouldn't reveal his plans for A-Rod against Detroit's all-righthanded rotation.

"I usually say I'm going to worry about one day at a time," Girardi said. "I am going to worry about it tonight. And I'll have a lineup for you tomorrow."

Will it include A-Rod? Chavez went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts as the No. 9 hitter. He also didn't have a single ball hit to him at third base. So it's hard to say this gutsy move by Girardi had any impact at all, other than to drive pre-game chatter as fans made their way into Yankee Stadium.

By game's end, no one was thinking about A-Rod. They were thinking about Sabathia's true ace performance, about how the Yankees match up against a Detroit team that bounced them from the playoffs last season, and about how odd it is that one series starts a day after the other one ends.

Rodriguez's postgame was full of bubbly and hugs as the Yankees draped a huge plastic sheet over the back half of their clubhouse.

When the champagne stopped flowing, the sheet was torn down to reveal Rodriguez standing with an empty bottle in the doorway to the players' private area. He hugged Sabathia before spying a pack of reporters coming at him.

The kid who wasn't picked turned and walked away. He did not return.

It was time to get ready for the Tigers. Or another day on the top step as the world's highest-paid cheerleader.


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