Commentary

Alex Rodriguez to face boos, Cliff Lee

Slugger's struggles against other Rangers starters raise red flags for ALCS

Updated: October 15, 2010, 10:00 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Alex Rodriguez might be the only member of the New York Yankees who is actually looking forward to facing Cliff Lee.

Because for A-Rod, at least, the Game 1 and Game 4 alternatives are so much worse.

Against Lee -- the lefty ace who will probably be a Yankee next season and possibly a Yankee-killer this postseason -- Rodriguez has respectable lifetime numbers: 8-for-30 (.267) with two homers, seven RBIs and seven strikeouts.

But against Game 1 starter C.J. Wilson, A-Rod is 1-for-13. Only a two-run double off Wilson in the third inning of a game in Arlington on Sept. 10 stands between Rodriguez and a big fat 0-fer.

A-Rod has never faced Game 2 starter Colby Lewis, but he is 0-4 with three K's against Game 4 starter Tommy Hunter. Which means that only his history with Lee, scheduled to go in Game 3 on Monday in the Bronx, could stand between Rodriguez and the kind of postseason numbers that earn a player a few grumbles even in his own ballpark.

So far, Rodriguez' postseason has been nothing much to cheer about, three singles in 11 at-bats against the Twins, a stat that is lost in the euphoria, or relief, over the three-game ALDS sweep, and not especially poor among Yankees regulars.

But against a team like the Texas Rangers, who have many more weapons on both sides of the ball than the Twins did, an A-Rod evaporation would not only be unacceptable, but perhaps insurmountable for the Yankees.

Last year, Rodriguez got off to a flying start against the Twins, batting .455 in that sweep, including the sixth-inning home run in Game 2 that reminded Carl Pavano redemption wasn't going to be as easy as it looked through the first five.

That series set the tone for the postseason that A-Rod says changed the perception of his career, a 15-game stretch that erased his image as an October dud and replaced it with that of a valued member of a World Champion.

Rodriguez hit .365 for the postseason (19-for-52) with six home runs and 18 RBIs. Certainly the Yankees could have beaten the Phillies without him last year -- he tailed off to .250 (5-for-20 with 1 HR) in the World Series -- but there's no way they would gotten there without him.

This year, it might work in reverse. He might well heat up by the time the Yankees get to the Series. Or, they may not get there at all unless he begins to hit the way he did in the first two rounds of the 2009 postseason. He had a great September, hitting .385 with nine homers and 26 RBIs to end up with 30 and 125 for the season, but he disappeared along with many of his teammates on the final weekend in Boston, managing just three singles in 14 at-bats.

Now, the Yankees need him to get hot again, and they need him to do it as soon as possible or risk heading into a Game 3 against the incomparable Lee with the series tied, or worse.

"For the most part, he had productive at-bats,''' manager Joe Girardi said of Rodriguez' ALDS performance. "He moved runners when he had to. He had an RBI out there. I thought he looked OK.''

But the Yankees need more than "productive at-bats'' out of their cleanup hitter. Rodriguez is not in the lineup to move runners over or to pick up a ribbie here or there. His job is to clear the bases, and in this one, he can't leave that task to Robbie Cano or Mark Teixeira or one of the two DHs, all of whom pulled their weight as well as his in the ALDS.

Now, it's time for A-Rod to start earning that $32 million salary again. One great postseason does not a career make or a reputation change. Rodriguez spent a lot of time Wednesday afternoon talking about his time as a Texas Ranger, the site of his original $252 million contract, and how much he regretted not getting the chance to play on a winner in Arlington.

Never the solution as a Ranger, there were more than a few people who thought A-Rod was part of the problem, and his decision to seek a trade to the Yankees was widely believed to be a concession that Rodriguez felt more comfortable following an established winner to the World Series rather than leading a young team there.

A lot of that was dispelled last October when A-Rod was as instrumental as anyone other than CC Sabathia in snapping the Yankees' nine-year championship drought.

But as the players like to say, that's the beauty of baseball. Yesterday doesn't matter. You always get another chance to do it again tomorrow.

That is also its curse. Just as one good postseason start can go a long way toward wiping out much of the mess A.J. Burnett made out of his regular season, another bad postseason can undo much of the good A-Rod did for himself last year.

"I don't think there's been any point in Alex' career that I've ever doubted him in what he can do in the course of a game,'' Girardi said. "Or in the course of a series, or in the course of a year.''

But then, there's never been a question of what Alex Rodriguez is capable of doing on a baseball field, only questions about whether he actually would do them at the time they are needed most.

Last year, he laid a lot of those questions to rest.

But in one of the most beautiful, and stubborn, aspects of baseball, every season those questions have a habit of re-emerging, demanding to be answered all over again.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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