- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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NEW YORK -- We're just a few days into Major League Baseball's postseason, and the formerly inexplicable is suddenly bordering on routine.
St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday loses a routine fly ball in a bunch of laundry at Dodger Stadium. Cole Hamels' wife goes into labor midway through a Phillies-Rockies game in which Hamels is pitching. And Reggie Jackson, Mr. October, throws out the ceremonial first pitch to Jorge Posada before Game 2 of the American League Division Series -- and bounces it from a distance of 40 feet.
Against that backdrop, it's only fitting that Alex Rodriguez would finally shed his reputation as postseason baseball's Dead Man Walking and embrace a more comfortable legacy. The surprise is that he's doing it so quickly, and with such authority.
A-Rod, the man formerly known for trying to swat the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's glove in October 2004 and being relegated to the eighth spot in the batting order by Joe Torre three years ago in Detroit, is turning over a new leaf this autumn. Fans might wave foam-rubber syringes and refer to him as "A-Roid" in Boston, Baltimore and Chicago. But in New York, he's becoming trendier than the Barack Obama Halloween mask.
The Yankees' 4-3 victory over Minnesota on Friday featured several indelible images. Mark Teixeira sent everybody home with a solo homer down the left field line against Jose Mijares in the 11th inning. Twins closer Joe Nathan experienced his very own Brad Lidge-Albert Pujols moment, then enhanced his stand-up-guy credentials by hanging around his locker and addressing every tough, painful question about his ordeal.
Finally, a rough October for the umpires continued when Phil Cuzzi ruled a fair ball foul in the top of the 11th, thus depriving Minnesota's Joe Mauer of a double and the Twins of a potential go-ahead run.
But for sheer, raising-the-hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck exhilaration, it will be hard to top Rodriguez's fourth plate appearance, when he hit a two-run homer off Nathan to erase a 3-1 deficit and send the game to extra innings.
Rodriguez has experienced a passel of memorable moments on the way to 12 All-Star Games, 10 Silver Slugger Awards and 583 career home runs. This one was special because you could practically see the pressure dissipate as he circled the bases.
"You feel so good," Rodriguez said. "You grind out an at-bat against one of the best closers in the game. And you get to a favorable count and get a pitch in your wheelhouse, and obviously you don't want to miss it. The fun part is, I was just thinking base hit. Hit the ball hard somewhere. And it went into the seats."
Until New York's high-profile hitters took over, the game was a testament to underdog determination. Twins starter Nick Blackburn, a former 29th-round draft pick, showed a stoic demeanor and some impressive late movement on his fastball to stifle the Yankees through 5 2/3 innings. When Minnesota carried a 3-1 lead into the ninth, manager Ron Gardenhire had to feel comfortable handing the ball to Nathan, arguably the second-most-reliable closer in the game behind the Yankees' Mariano Rivera.
But Nathan's path wouldn't be easy. Teixeira, leading off the inning, was 6-for-10 career against him, and Rodriguez was 4-for-9.
The numbers ultimately translated to heartbreak for Minnesota. The Yankees led the majors with 15 walk-off wins this season, and they've added another one to the ledger.
"Sometimes early in the game, guys say, 'Hey, we've got time. We'll just be patient,'" Teixeira said. "It didn't happen [in Game 2], but in the ninth, that's it. You only get one shot. And because of our lineup -- because of the big bats -- sometimes pitchers may get a little tight and we take advantage of it."
Teixeira began the inning with a line single to right to set the stage for A-Rod. Nathan threw a curve in the dirt, then missed with two sliders before throwing a fastball for a strike.
When Nathan came in with another fastball -- clocked at 94 mph -- Rodriguez crushed it over the center-field fence to send the crowd of 50,006 into a frenzy.
"I've never heard this stadium louder than that, and I don't think I've ever heard a ball coming off a bat louder than that," Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher said. "For Alex just to get to that 3-1 count to lay off those pitches and stay right through the ball damn. That was a pretty swing."
Two innings later, Teixeira made sure that Rodriguez's big moment wasn't wasted. The Web site hittrackeronline.com, which actually chronicles such things, notes that Teixeira's game-winning homer against Mijares left the bat at 110 mph and cleared the fence in 2.88 seconds. That made it the fastest homer to leave the park in a big league game this season, and it earned Teixeira the obligatory shaving-cream pie from Game 2 starter A.J. Burnett.
Rodriguez and Teixeira became the first combination since 2005 to tie a postseason game with a homer in the ninth and win it with a walk-off job in extra innings. Brad Ausmus and Chris Burke of the '05 Houston Astros were the last duo to achieve the feat.
Rodriguez and Teixeira clearly have a nice little synergy going. They're both Scott Boras clients, they played together previously in Texas, and they went to lunch in Baltimore in May when Rodriguez was just returning from hip surgery and enjoyed rehashing old times.
"I think we make a good combination," Rodriguez said. "We make a good team, and we help each other out."
When Rodriguez came off the disabled list in May -- not far removed from that steroid bombshell -- he repeatedly said he would devote himself to baseball and try to refrain from making any more off-field headlines. Five months later, he's making all the right kinds of news and basking in a new support system. Marc Philippon, the surgeon who performed "hybrid" surgery on Rodriguez's hip in March, was at Yankee Stadium on Friday, and A-Rod's girlfriend, Kate Hudson, is now a box-seat staple on TV broadcasts.
The old A-Rod squeezed the bat to sawdust in the postseason. The new A-Rod waits for his pitch, swings the bat with confidence and hears cheers from the crowd when his face appears on the JumboTron as he takes the field after big hits.
From the way Rodriguez's teammates greeted him in the dugout in the ninth inning, you would have thought he had just won the Nobel Peace Prize.
"Maybe this will put all that other [expletive] to rest," Swisher said. "You guys should write an awful lot of good things about him tomorrow morning."
Said manager Joe Girardi: "I know it's been documented and people have talked about Alex's struggles. But I've said all along that I think he's in a great place this year. I really do."
Whatever place he's in, Rodriguez seems ready to take the Yankees along for the ride. This Division Series is set to resume Sunday in Minnesota, and the Yankees appear to have a lot more baseball left in them this autumn.
Alex Rodriguez is forging a new identity this October, playing a far different role than in previous years.