BOSTON – Dusk settled over Fenway Park as Alex Rodriguez, maneuvering to steal back the title of best player in baseball, stood in the on-deck circle. His New York Yankees – and these days, personality issues aside, they are his – trailed the Boston Red Sox 7-5, and with Melky Cabrera leading off second base, Bobby Abreu at the plate and two outs on the scoreboard, he stood poised to play hero again.
"Somewhere along the line," Rodriguez said, "I thought I'd get a chance."
It never came Saturday. Jonathan Papelbon, Boston's stalwart closer, fired his 19th fastball in 19 pitches, and Abreu scorched a line drive toward right-center field, where Coco Crisp tracked the ball into his glove for the final out of the Red Sox's second victory in two games this season against New York. Rodriguez grabbed the barrel of his bat, slammed the knob against the ground to loosen the weighted donut and strode off the field, between two security guards and amid an unabridged dictionary's worth of nasty words from Red Sox fans.
The disillusionment spread to the Yankees, too, for their belief in Rodriguez might exceed his in himself. Rodriguez is having one of the great Aprils in baseball history and, in another week, might substitute "Aprils" with "months." He has won two games with home runs, sprinkled in another 10 bombs for good measure and has driven in 31 runs in 16 games. His batting average sits at .379, his slugging percentage 1.030 and his metamorphosis from demoted No. 8 hitter in the postseason to confident No. 4 hitter in baseball's most potent lineup undoubtedly at 100 percent.
"He's in a good place right now," Yankees manager Joe Torre said, and the remark was neither snide nor snippy.
It was the simple truth: An uncomfortable Alex Rodriguez, the kind who tends to appear in October and is more known for his failures than supreme talents, tries to solve problems himself, a lonely endeavor if ever there were one. A comfortable Alex Rodriguez, the kind for whom the Yankees acquired four years ago and who, if such a thing is possible, could justify his $27.7 million salary, opens up and accepts his role as a cog, not the whole damn machine.
On this afternoon, Rodriguez went a ho-hum 2-for-4 with a double, his 19th extra-base hit among 25 total this season. In his first at-bat against Red Sox starter Josh Beckett, Rodriguez stared at four pitches, the last of which was a 96-mph strike over the inside corner. In his last, he laced an RBI single that chased Beckett and backed up what Torre alluded to before the game.
"The biggest change from last year to this year," Torre said, "is he's been able to dismiss bad at-bats and not have them affect his next at-bat."
By the end of last season, Rodriguez's game was in shambles. The organization used a butter knife to carve him up in a Sports Illustrated story. He embarrassed himself with a 1-for-14 showing in the American League Division Series, which came one year after a 2-for-15 ALDS. Then came the spring-training drama in which he 'fessed up that his friendship with Jeter had soured. All of that was the casing for a bomb, and the fact that Rodriguez's contract includes an opt-out clause after this season provided the plutonium.
And then, with everything swirling, something incredible happened: A-Rod, human balsa wood, turned to oak. In the coming days, he should pass Juan Gonzalez's big-league record of 35 RBIs in April. And while it's rather inconceivable that he reaches the one-month mark of 53, set by Hack Wilson in 1930 and Joe DiMaggio nine years later, the idea of Rodriguez cooling down sounds ludicrous.
"His approach in his stance is so much softer than it was a year ago," Torre said. "A year ago, you didn't see the fluidity that we see now. It's just like, 'I dare you to get me out.' That's just the body language talking. And a lot of hitters are like that when they're going through good streaks. But Alex's good streaks, as you can see, are pretty special."
Which made the prospect of a Rodriguez-Papelbon showdown so intriguing.
Power vs. power.
Red Sox vs. Yankees.
Maybe – hopefully – another time in the 17 games remaining between the two.
"I'm always up for a challenge," Papelbon said, "that's for sure."
In the meantime, with Saturday's game in the books, the series grants another matchup to savor, one with perhaps more intrigue than Rodriguez-Papelbon: The two biggest stories of the young season, A-Rod and Daisuke Matsuzaka, will face each other for the first time Sunday night.
"He's a phenom," Rodriguez said. "We're very excited to see him."
And on that note, his day was done. Rodriguez returned to the Yankees' clubhouse, where he spent most of his time texting on his Razr and listening to his iPod. He hadn't much to say, not on this day.
Rodriguez had been stranded in the on-deck circle, which might as well have been a deserted island. It was a lonely place. The kind he's working harder and harder to never go again.
- Red Sox