Thursday, September 3, 2009

The New A-Rod

There is something different about Alex Rodriguez.

For five years we have witnessed a prima donna who at times seemed much more interested on how he looked doing things than winning.

It wasn't enough to drive in the winning run, he had to do it with a majestic blast that sailed high and went deep into the left field stands. It wasn't enough for people to just know how great he was, he had to show them by taking his leads off second base and pointing to each outfielder to show people he was taking note of where everyone was positioned.

But that's not the A-Rod we've seen this season.

This season A-Rod's lowered his profile and kept the focus on the team and winning. That was never more evident than in two big at-bats in the Yankees' 10-2 victory over the Orioles in Baltimore Wednesday, giving CC Sabathia his AL-best 16th victory. The Yankees moved 7-1/2 games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East and lowered their magic number to clinch the division to 23.

A-Rod, who went 3-for-5 with four RBI, came up with runners at second and third in the seventh with no outs and the score tied at 1. A-Rod proceeded to stroke a 1-and-1, 95 mph fastball that was on the lower, inside corner into center for a single -- the 2,500th hit of his career.

Then in the ninth with the Yankees nursing a 3-2 lead and Mariano Rivera unavailable because of a minor groin injury, A-Rod came up with the bases loaded and no outs and lined a 0-and-2, 96 mph fastball into center to plate two and spark a seven-run inning.

Even the night before in a 9-6 win, A-Rod came up with runners of first and second and the Yankees trailing by 1 and singled again to center on a 1-and-1, 95 mph fastball.

How many times in the past have seen Rodriguez come up in similar spots and try to hit the monster homer, only to end up striking out or hitting a weak grounder? Well, suddenly he's no longer trying to do too much with pitches and delivering key hits.

Something most definitely is different about A-Rod.

And you have to go back to the spring to understand why. It was a rough offseason for Alex. First he was stung by criticism -- fair criticism, mind you -- from Joe Torre in "The Yankee Years," then came the steroids admission and finally the hip injury, resulting in surgery and about a month in Colorado recovering.

When he returned to the team in May, A-Rod said he used the time in Colorado to think about what had gone on and decided he needed to focus on baseball. Many took that with a grain of salt. Who could blame them? It's not like A-Rod had a reputation for being very sincere.

But maybe, just maybe, A-Rod did grow during that month of rehab. Maybe he matured. Maybe he realized that he's in his 30s, hasn't yet won a championship and needed to change. Or perhaps he finally understood that on a team as talented as the Yankees, he doesn't need to be "the guy," the person who carries the load -- and that he shouldn't even try to do that.

Oh, don't get me wrong, A-Rod is still the engine that makes the Yankees' offense run and has still hit his fair share of homers (23), but his willingness to sacrifice some stats is making that offense's engine run much more efficiently.

Yes, the Yankees have hit a ton of homers this season (208), but the offense has developed an attack that is much more diverse and capable of scoring more runs in a variety of ways. We have seen the team be able to manufacture runs better and deliver more in clutch situations. And we have seen A-Rod, who is hitting .274 with 75 RBI and an OBP of .403 (about 13 points over his career average), come up with a good number of those big hits -- and not just homers, though he has hit a few big ones.

Wednesday, A-Rod's two singles made a winner of CC Sabathia (16-7, 3.48 ERA), who has become the front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award. Sabathia struggled through the first two innings, allowing a Nick Markakis sacrifice fly in the first, before settling down to allow one run on seven hits and one walk in seven inning. He struck out nine and threw 73 of 105 pitches for strikes.

With Rivera out, Phil Hughes got the last out of the eighth and pitched the ninth for his second save after Brian Bruney allowed a homer to Nick Reimold with one out in the eighth to make it 3-2. Eric Hinske homered in the third to tie it a 1.

Look, I understand that anything A-Rod does during the regular season means little. It's all about the postseason. A-Rod has a lot to prove there, but if he can continue with the changed attitude and willingness to sacrifice for the good of the team, things will bode very well, and both A-Rod and the team will have that postseason success that's eluded them since A-Rod's arrival in 2004.

Runners In Scoring Position
7-for-15 (.467)
338-for-1,247 (.269)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
121-for-428 (.283)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
273-for-974 (.280)
Vs. Red Sox
36-for-163 (.221)

Up Next
Thursday at Blue Jays, 7:07 p.m., YES
Chad Gaudin (5-10, 4.90) vs. Ricky Romero (11-6, 3.95)

Gaudin is making the start in place of Sergio Mitre, who is still recovering after taking a line drive off his forearm Saturday.


Unknown said...

He's actually having fun. I've never seen him smile as much as this season. The whole team is having fun. And it seems as though A-Rod may actually be liked by a majority of his teammates, which is a first. He's right there in the walk-off celebrations. He, Cano, Damon, Swisher, and Melky have their handslap, shake, whatever thing they do, but it's all in fun. Yes, it will all come down to what happens in October, but this is a good sign.

By the way, since I'm not in the local Yankee area, I have this question about the helmet tossing on walk-off homers. Is that like the bouquet at a wedding? As in, the person who catches it will be the "next one" to get a walk-off hit?

Unknown said...

Players actually toss the helmet because if they leave it one when they arrive at home plate, the helmet actually turns the head slaps a bit painful ... possibly because when the teammate hit a tad harder when the player has on some protection.

Unknown said...

I get that part. I'm wondering why there's always a few guys boxing out to catch it?

Unknown said...

I haven't noticed anyone boxing out to catch the helmet, just people boxing out to create a clear path to home to make the sure the player touches before they pound on him.