A-Rod: From 'rock bottom' to rocking October
Slugger's season morphs from surgery to postseason surge
ANAHEIM -- Alex Rodriguez's Yankees career was over. It was October 2007 and he had been tossed into the ex-Bombers bin, leaving ownership to evaluate their options. There was finality to the decision: As Hank Steinbrenner said then, "It's goodbye."
Of course, that's not the way the story ended, with A-Rod and the Yankees reconciling to again make him baseball's best-paid performer and remain linked in marriage for 10 years, for better or for worse. Here, in the 2009 postseason, it has been almost all of the former and none of the latter.
Rodriguez rescued the Yankees again in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday, belting a game-tying opposite-field home run off Angels closer Brian Fuentes in the 11th to help set up New York's 4-3 victory in 13 innings.
"I think Alex is in a great state of mind," manager Joe Girardi said. "He's very comfortable. He feels good at the plate, physically he feels good and he's not trying to do too much. I'm not sure where we'd be right now without him."
It was the third late-inning game-tying home run hit this postseason by Rodriguez, who entered October with a full head of steam.
Rodriguez is the third player in postseason history to hit a game-tying extra-inning homer, joining Houston's Billy Hatcher (1986 NLCS, Game 6) and Cleveland's Albert Belle (1995 ALDS, Game 1).
And he's the fourth player with two or more game-tying or go-ahead homers in the ninth inning or later in one postseason, joining Boston's David Ortiz (2004) and Dave Henderson (1986), and the Dodgers' Kirk Gibson (1988).
Mark Teixeira galloped up and down the dugout at Yankee Stadium after Rodriguez's shot, yelling, "He did it again! He did it again!"
Maybe Teixeira shouldn't have been so surprised.
"The feeling is [that] he's going to do it," right-hander A.J. Burnett said. "He's being himself, he's acting himself, he's having fun and it's showing. I haven't been here in the past, but since I've been here, he rakes in October."
That perspective is the one Rodriguez would rather define his career, coming in a season that began with him looking at the ski slopes outside a Vail, Colo., hospital and coming to the realization that he is 34, not 44, and that there was still time to rewrite the story with a happy ending.
"I know you guys are probably looking for something profound," Rodriguez said to reporters on Sunday morning. "I mean, I'm just in a good place. I'm seeing the ball and I'm hitting it. I mean, that's about it."
Rodriguez claims he hit "rock bottom" by having to awkwardly admit his past use of performance-enhancing drugs and then submit to the right hip surgery that left him wondering if he would be the next Bo Jackson, but he is developing into the reliable force the Yankees knew he could be.
Home run heroes
"Coming in with no expectations to the season and to the postseason, the fact that I'm out there playing baseball is a miracle," he said. "I'm very thankful for that."
Johnny Damon believes that the Yankees' deeper lineup is helping Rodriguez, just as A-Rod helped Teixeira after returning on May 8 and belting a homer on his first swing of the season. Damon said that opposing pitchers can't operate efficiently knowing that Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano are waiting to do damage.
"I think Alex is at that comfort zone that he feels like he's a big part of our team, and that's great," Damon said.
A very well-compensated part of the team, for sure. The contract that Rodriguez eventually agreed upon is for 10 years and $275 million, with included provisions that would pay him an additional $30 million if he eventually overtakes Barry Bonds as baseball's all-time home run king.
Rodriguez has been cashing the game's biggest checks since 2000, when he signed a record-setting deal with the Rangers that made him equal parts icon and target. The contract later became an albatross. No one sheds tears over George Steinbrenner's profit margin, but A-Rod's big-money rep has been an obstacle to overcome.
"Everybody has always looked at Alex as making that big contract, so he should hit a home run every time up there," Damon said. "I think Alex probably thought that of himself before. He should always perform. But we tend to forget how tough this game is sometimes."
The Yankees will think that their investment is worth every penny if Rodriguez continues to be as lethal in the postseason as he has been during his career in the spring and summer.
"You can't say enough about what he's done so far for us in the postseason," Swisher said. "And we expect him to continue."
More rested than in past seasons after adhering to rules adopted to protect his right hip, Rodriguez entered October carrying the statistics of the Joe Torre era, an 0-for-18 string with runners in scoring position and a .136 (8-for-59) average in the playoffs dating back to 2004.
Discarding those numbers like the piece of gum he flung past third base in a home-run trot on Saturday, Rodriguez has spoiled outings for Minnesota's Joe Nathan and Fuentes, both All-Star closers, as well as a Carl Pavano shutout bid in helping lead the Yankees to five consecutive October wins.
"I think he's been patient," Girardi said. "He's looked for his pitch. He's not been in a hurry to get something done. There are times they're not going to give him anything to hit. As a hitter, you have to be willing to pass the baton. But when he's got his pitch, he hasn't missed it."
Girardi said earlier this week that 25 at-bats constitutes a good batter-vs.-pitcher sampling -- Rodriguez has 13 so far in the postseason. Yet that small sample has been enough to have his teammates expect that Rodriguez can and will save them, time and time again.
"So far, so good," Rodriguez said. "I've been feeling comfortable. But I felt good all year. I just feel like it's just a continuation of the season."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.