- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- Johnny Damon's mad dash to third base, Cole Hamels' meltdown and Charlie Manuel's decision not to overextend Cliff Lee might all go down as turning points in the 2009 World Series. But if you're looking for a pivotal below-the-radar moment, it might have come early in Game 3 on Saturday, when a stray Hamels fastball plunked Alex Rodriguez in the upper arm.
Before that plate appearance, Rodriguez was 0-for-8 with six strikeouts in the Series. He was squeezing the bat, swinging at balls at his shins and looking nothing like the dominant force who overpowered the Twins and the Angels in the American League playoffs.
Now he's one win away from a championship. When you're as talented as A-Rod, you have the luxury of getting mad and getting even.
"That at-bat kind of woke me up a little bit and just reminded me, 'Hey, this is the World Series. Let's get it going a little bit,'" Rodriguez said. "So it worked out."
Even by his own exacting standards, Rodriguez has been at the center of an awful lot of plotlines the past two days.
In Game 3, Rodriguez homered off a television camera beyond the right-field fence, prompting the first use of instant replay in postseason history. And in Game 4, he helped carry himself and his teammates to the brink of the goal he has always craved.
Rodriguez's double off Brad Lidge scored Johnny Damon to break a ninth-inning tie and lead the Yankees to a 7-4 victory at Citizens Bank Park. During an autumn that's brought redemption, memorable moments and round-the-clock praise from his manager and teammates, Rodriguez might have outdone himself.
"There's no question -- I have never had a bigger hit," he said.
For Rodriguez, the past week has shown how fleeting back slaps and "atta boys" can be. With a .438 average and five home runs against Minnesota and Los Angeles in the playoffs, A-Rod did a welcome revamp to his image. One New York newspaper, giving him the quintessential backhanded compliment, referred to him as "former playoff choker Alex Rodriguez."
But A-Rod's feeble at-bats against Cliff Lee and Pedro Martinez in the first two games of this series reminded everyone of his predicament. If he continued to flail and the Yankees came up short against the Phillies, would the media and diehard fans still embrace him as a "true Yankee"?
Saturday's home run did a lot to help relax Rodriguez. Considering the physical beating he's taken at Citizens Bank Park the past two days, his second-biggest challenge was keeping his temper in check.
After Hamels drilled Rodriguez, Phillies reliever Chad Durbin hit him in the thigh in the seventh inning Saturday. Then Joe Blanton nailed him in the back in the first inning Sunday. For those keeping score at home, that's 269 mph worth of heaters off assorted body parts in a span of 24 hours.
Rodriguez stood at home plate for several moments after the Blanton pitch to take a deep breath and collect his thoughts. But the most galling turn of events for the Yankees came shortly thereafter, when the umpiring crew conferred, and home plate ump Mike Everitt issued a warning to both benches: The next plunking from either club that was deemed intentional would be grounds for ejection.
Would that put a crimp in New York starter CC Sabathia's ability to pitch inside? Although Sabathia considered the warning "a little premature," it didn't alter his approach.
"They told me when I went out there that we had a warning issued, but I had to pitch to both sides of the plate, and I had no reservations about doing that at any time," Sabathia said.
Sabathia departed in the seventh with a lead, and even though Joba Chamberlain surrendered it with a gopher ball to Pedro Feliz, the Yankees produced enough resourcefulness and clutch hitting against Lidge to take control of the series.
When Damon alertly sprinted from second to third after a stolen base, it amplified the risks Lidge faced in yanking down too hard on a slider and throwing the pitch in the dirt. So Lidge started off Rodriguez with two fastballs, both clocked at 92 mph, and A-Rod lined the second one into the left-field corner to break the tie.
"One thing about the postseason: If you want to hit, you've got to swing at strikes," Rodriguez said. "If you don't swing at strikes, you're going to expose your weakness."
To which Rodriguez's teammates might respond: What weakness?
"I wasn't here before this season, but I know he's about as relaxed as I could have imagined him ever being," A.J. Burnett said. "It doesn't matter what the situation is when he comes up. He's confident, he's loose, he's hitting the ball and he's having a blast."
Said Damon: "Without him, who knows where our road may have stopped?"
This season began, of course, with Rodriguez's admission of performance-enhancing drug use in Texas from 2001 through 2003. His odyssey continued with hip surgery, a month on the shelf in the regular season, and a late surge to finish with 30 homers and 100 RBIs for the record 13th time in his career.
Now Rodriguez has a date with a champagne celebration. Or sparkling wine, if you prefer. He and the Yankees are just one win away from a title.
"We've been down this road before, and we have to stay very focused," Rodriguez said. "Those guys are the world champs. They're going to come out fighting, and so are we. So we just have to stay in the moment."
The Phillies violated a cardinal rule of sports Saturday by refusing to let a sleeping superstar lie. And now they're paying the price.