Will A-Rod hit in postseason?
NEW YORK ” He’s a sure Hall of Famer, perhaps the next home-run king. Yet, come October, Alex Rodriguez must prove he belongs.
Prove that he belongs on the Yankees. Prove he belongs among the greats. Prove that when it’s time to come up big, he doesn’t disappear.
It’s as simple as 1-2-3.
A total of 123 players have had RBIs during the past two postseasons. Rodriguez isn’t one of them. So when the red-white-and-blue bunting is draped over the railings and the teams line up along the foul lines for the postseason opener, his 50-plus homers and 150 or so RBIs during a sizzling season will be like last year’s report card, collecting dust on a shelf.
Yankees fans will be thinking about different numbers: 1-for-14 against Detroit in last year’s division series and 2-for-15 versus the Angels the previous year. Including the end of New York’s 2004 AL championship series collapse against Boston, A-Rod is 4-for-41 (.098) with no RBIs in his last 12 postseason games.
And here’s the most shocking stat: He’s hitless in his last 15 postseason at-bats with runners in scoring position, striking out six times.
For Joe Torre, the math is far simpler in fans’ minds: No World Series titles.
“I think that’s going to follow him,” the Yankees manager said, comparing A-Rod’s situation to that of John Elway.
“I don’t think there was any doubt about John Elway’s ability and the fact that he was going to go to the Hall of Fame and the fact that he was pretty damn special,” Torre said, “but all of a sudden, he didn’t gain that credibility until he won.”
Pinstriped hero or Bronx reject? A-Rod’s place in history could be defined in the next few weeks.
Always the center of attention because of his bat and record contract, Rodriguez could be in his final weeks with the Yankees ” he can opt out of the final three seasons of his $252 million, 10-year contract during the 10 days after the World Series and become a free agent.
His regular season this year is unmatched ” at 32, he became the youngest player to reach 500 homers and he’ll likely win his third AL MVP award.
In Torre’s eyes, A-Rod’s big regular seasons won’t be forgotten in years to come and will gain appreciation with perspective. At times, especially when Rodriguez hit 14 home runs during April, A-Rod kept the Yankees from sinking even farther behind in the postseason chase before the team started to click.
But in the clubhouse, where Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada are icons because of their World Series rings, players know the ultimate title is the only one that really counts. The Yankees have been stuck on 26 World Series championships since 2000, when they won for the fourth time in five years, and All-Stars have come in and out the clubhouse door with the speed of commuters going through subway turnstiles.
“We have to produce or it’s a down year for us,” Johnny Damon said.
A-Rod, circumspect in his comments this season, doesn’t think about whether others will judge him solely on the postseason.
“I can’t speak for the fans,” he said before a game against Baltimore this week. “The most important thing you do is each and every day in front of you.”
Two years ago, coming off a regular season that would earn him his second MVP, he put just 10 balls in play during five games against the Angels. They pitched off the plate ” he saw 47 balls and 46 strikes, according to STATS Inc. ” and Rodriguez became overanxious.
“I played great baseball all year, and I played like a dog the last five days,” is how he summed it up then.
Last year, he struggled through perhaps his most trying regular season. Detroit’s hard throwers went after him in the playoffs, and again he put just 10 balls in play. He didn’t hit, didn’t field and gave himself a grade of “pretty lousy.”
By the fourth and final game, Torre dropped him to eighth in the batting order ” a spot A-Rod hadn’t seen since May 1996, when he was 20 and just starting his career with the Seattle Mariners.
Reggie Jackson is remembered for the big nights that earned him his “Mr. October” nickname. He’s talked a lot with A-Rod over the last two years and says players can’t go into playoff games with the same mind-set they have during the grind of the regular season.
“Why did Koufax and Gibson and that type of player rise to the occasion in postseason? It’s not just another game. It’s not another day,” Jackson said. “Ask anybody in New York. You’d get 11 million people that say the same thing. It would be the only thing they agree on.”
Through Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, Rodriguez was a .363 postseason hitter with six homers and 16 RBIs in 23 games. Since then, he’s had all of three singles and a double ” all with no one on base.
But Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, like Torre, thinks it is unfair to evaluate Rodriguez’s just on his playoff production ” or lack thereof.
“The postseason is such a small sample size and a lot of things happen, or can happen, that are out of your control,” Cashman said. “I know that’s how it gets written, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.”
And Yogi Berra, the man with 10 World Series rings, says postseason stats are secondary.
“I think the regular season counts more,” he said. “You can’t get in if you’re not doing good in the regular season. You’ve got to get in first.”
Rodriguez is a creature of habit, going through pregame routines with the regularity bordering on obsession. He says he treats regular-season games as if it already was the postseason.
“We’ve been in playoff mode here for two months so, you don’t have time to come up for air in this game. You’ve got to stay day to day,” he said. “We’ve got to play to get to the postseason. It’s not a given.”
He says he learned from the experience against the Angels. Teams have been wary to pitch to him at times this year.
“He was a different hitter two years ago than he is today,” said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, the Angels’ bench coach in 2005. “The difference today is that his swing is shorter and he’s covering more of the plate. He’s got better hand involvement and better balance throughout his swing. He hasn’t gone through one of those periods this year where you feel like you could get him out. We’ve seen him a lot and he’s just been locked in the whole time, so there’s no one area to go to now.
“In the past, you might have been able to go hard in, and then soft down and away. But he’s covering both sides of the plate right now.”
A-Rod entered the last 10 days of the season in a slump. He has to remain conscious of not lifting his front foot too much during his swing and putting his mechanics out of whack.
Perhaps that’s a good sign. He had hot Septembers in 2005 and 2006, then withered like a leaf falling from a tree.
He’s not thinking about what he’s accomplished. He says that, and it’s probably true.
One day, one swing at a time. Talk about the game. Keep the focus on the field.
“In the offseason you’re able to reflect a little bit,” he said, “but certainly never during the season.”
AP freelance writer Joe Resnick in Anaheim, Calif., contributed to this report.
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