- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- Jorge Posada comes to the ballpark every day thinking maybe today will be the day he'll start turning things around. Maybe today he'll take off on a hot streak and finally master this new job of designated hitter that he has.
Then the game arrives, and his batting average just keeps sliding down -- below .140, and now .130. Yankees manager Joe Girardi gave Posada two days off this week. The break didn't help. Saturday at the Stadium, Posada's latest 0-for-3 game was a reminder of how an everyday baseball player -- even one as accomplished as Posada -- can still be hitting only .125 on the first day of May.
Posada has been a bit under the radar, because the Yankees are in first place and the Derek Jeter batting stance melodrama -- to stride or not to stride, that is the question -- has siphoned so much attention away from the other Yankees who aren't hitting. But sooner or later, the spotlight is going to swing toward Posada, even after games like the Yankees' 5-4 win over Toronto on Saturday.
Posada went 0-for-3 while Russell Martin, his replacement as starting catcher, hung up the kind of game Posada used to. Martin knocked in the Yankees' first run with a sharp single, and then threw out Blue Jays left fielder Juan Rivera as Rivera tried to steal third in the sixth inning, with the Yankees clinging to a one-run lead.
Of the Yankees' three remaining core players from their glory days, it's Posada -- not Jeter -- who is going to find himself in the toughest position if the season keeps going like this. Andy Pettitte knew when to quit and didn't return this season. Jeter may yet have to be dragged off the field some day, but at least he has the security of his just-signed contract extension. And Mariano Rivera? Well, he might never get old. But Posada is in the final year of his Yankees contract and rapidly hurtling closer to a Catch-22 situation because of the way he's struggling.
Posada already finds himself in one jam -- trying to adjust to being a designated hitter at the age of 39 going on 40, after 17 big league seasons of being involved in every pitch of every game. But if Posada doesn't start hitting -- and soon -- how long can Girardi give him before other hotter teammates begin taking some of Posada's DH starts away too? Which will make it even harder for Posada to stay sharp or get enough at-bats to find his stroke and dig out of the serious hole his average is already in.
"Jorge is a grinder. He's always been a grinder, and he'll continue to grind out his at-bats," Girardi said Saturday. Rather than refer to how Posada pounded into two groundouts and got a walk in his first three at-bats, Girardi preferred to dwell on how Posada lined out to left in the eighth, which got a brief little rise from the crowd until the Blue Jays' Rivera ran hard toward the gap and caught the ball over his shoulder.
"I think his at-bats have been better. I really do," Girardi insisted.
They have to be better, because a designated hitter who doesn't hit doesn't get to stay a designated hitter for very long.
Not even when you've meant as much to the franchise as Posada has.
(Posada was not at his locker to speak with reporters after Saturday's game.)
When Yankees general manager Brian Cashman first pulled Posada aside in December and told him he was going to be the Yankees' full-time DH this year, Cashman took some heat for making a blunter-than-necessary move in an offseason that would feature quite a few of them. Some Posada supporters complained -- hasn't the guy deserved the right to at least lose the job in spring training? But Cashman's foresight and lack of sentimentality just keep looking smarter.
Martin -- who's hitting .293 -- has been one of the most pleasant surprises in the majors so far. And Posada's slow start has been slower than even the worst cynic might have predicted.
The idea that Posada wouldn't hit -- or at least hit better than he has so far -- probably never crossed even Cashman's mind. Even in his prime, Posada wasn't the greatest defensive catcher. But he could hit, all right -- right-handed, left-handed, whatever side of the plate you put him on, Posada could always hit. For a long time he was the best hitting catcher in the game, and if he gets into the Hall of Fame, that and his five World Series rings will be why.
But Posada is also proud. There was something painful about watching him take off toward first after he sent that liner streaking toward Rivera in the eighth inning Saturday with a loud crack of the bat. For a few seconds there, as he took off sprinting, there seemed to be hope in every step. But it quickly became clear that Rivera was going to catch up to the ball after all, and when it settled into his glove, Posada was just rounding the bag and he slowed down, tossed his head to one side and stopped.
Then he made the right turn back to the dugout staring down at the grass as he jogged back.
It's the sort of turn no hitter likes to make, especially not one as proven as Posada.
Maybe tomorrow will be better. Very soon he's going to get to the point where it has to be. Posada doesn't have a whole lot of tomorrows left.
After an awful April, Jorge Posada looks like a player reaching the end of the line.