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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Alex Rodriguez's ego is the least of Joe Girardi's issues

Alex Rodriguez talks with manager Joe Girardi before

Alex Rodriguez talks with manager Joe Girardi before Game 1 of the ALCS. (Oct. 13, 2012) Credit: Jim McIsaac

Once the cloud of desperation had cleared from Friday's elimination game, which the Yankees survived without Alex Rodriguez, Joe Girardi found it safe to return him to the lineup for Saturday night's ALCS opener against the Tigers.

It didn't mean that Girardi suddenly trusted A-Rod or believed that the Yankees' $275-million enigma woke up that morning remembering how to hit a baseball beyond the infield dirt. The simple truth is that Girardi could afford to stick Rodriguez back in the lineup, knowing that if he failed this time, the Yankees would live to fight another day.

A-Rod made it only to the eighth inning. That's when Girardi chose to pull him for a pinch hitter, on this occasion Eric Chavez, for the third time in three consecutive starts.

With the Yankees trailing 4-0, maybe Girardi could have spared Rodriguez any further embarrassment.

But the manager apparently is done worrying about egos, and Rodriguez's 0-for-3 Saturday night, which included stranding six, could put him on the bench for the remainder of this ALCS. Given the Tigers' righthanded rotation and another tying two-run homer by Raul Ibañez in the ninth inning, Girardi will aim to use both Ibañez and Chavez from now on.

Before Game 1, Girardi talked about how Rodriguez "can do a lot of damage," but the manager didn't specify to which team -- the Tigers or the Yankees.

He was hoping the ALCS opener would represent a clean slate for Rodriguez, as if it were the start of a new semester or a second marriage.

"I think, in a sense, everyone should press the reset button," Girardi said Saturday afternoon. "Forget what happened yesterday. Forget what happened three days ago."

Sorry, Joe, it doesn't work that way. Everyone remembers the shocking sequence from the ALDS, which started with A-Rod being pulled for a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of Game 3, again in Game 4 and then benched for Game 5. It all worked out fine in the end for Girardi, and the manager now knows that A-Rod -- if he doesn't emerge from this funk -- won't necessarily cost him the ALCS.

But the Yankees could use the help, and the fans, now pitying their fallen star, actually welcomed him to the plate Saturday night with a standing ovation. It was not a selfless gesture. Tigers starter Doug Fister had just walked the bases loaded, and with two outs, A-Rod didn't have to wait for his shot at redemption.

Rodriguez hacked at a first-pitch fastball and ripped a hard grounder that was destined to be a run-scoring single to leftfield, along with his first hit off a righthanded pitcher of this postseason. But Jhonny Peralta ruined it with a full-extension dive to his right, then rifled a throw to second that narrowly beat Ibañez.

During his next two trips to the plate, the crowd wasn't quite as supportive. The fans booed after Rodriguez grounded into a double play to end the third inning and really crushed him after he whiffed on three pitches with two runners in scoring position in the sixth.

Always a magnet for controversy, Rodriguez was briefly a sympathetic figure. Watching the crowd attempting to will him back to life, by cheering and clapping as if he were Tinkerbell, was an odd, and short-lived, phenomenon.

Rodriguez is no dummy. He knows he's a mess right now. And if the manager truly believed Rodriguez was one swing away from being the 2009 A-Rod, he never would have sat him for Game 5.

Girardi just has better options, especially against righthanded pitchers, and he won't have as much patience in this series as he did in the last one.

"This is a guy we expect a lot from," Girardi said. "I talk about sometimes going with my gut, and evaluating what I see, and different things you take into account when you make out the lineup, and I think he's raring to go."

It's too late to fix A-Rod for this October, and despite the humbling chain of events this October, Rodriguez really can't hold a grudge, regardless of how this turns out.

There's been a lot of discussion about the long-term ramifications of Girardi's actions on his relationship with A-Rod going forward, but Rodriguez can only blame himself for what has happened here.

All along, A-Rod has said the right things and maintained the public image of being a "team-first" guy. He has plenty of company when it comes to stranding runners, and that may force Girardi to make more adjustments to the lineup.

What we learned Saturday night, however, is that there won't be a fresh start for A-Rod in this series. The Yankees must hope that won't mean the end of their playoff run, too.

New York Sports