- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Can you imagine what would be said, written and thought about Alex Rodriguez if this were a year ago, the New York Yankees were still in the midst of their nine-year title drought, they were facing elimination from the ALCS, and their cleanup hitter was batting just .176 with no home runs, one extra-base hit and two measly RBIs?
Same old A-Rod. October choker. Go away, Mr. May.
But it is not 2009 anymore, and happily for A-Rod, that season ended with a parade down Broadway and a World Series ring on Rodriguez's finger, a ring that he was instrumental in earning.
This year, the Yankees are on the verge of a disastrous exit from the playoffs and no one is pointing a finger at A-Rod, who has been missing in action.
That's how much difference a year, and a ring, makes around here.
"He has not had to answer those questions this year, and that makes it easier for him," manager Joe Girardi said Thursday. "He's had some good at-bats, and we all know how explosive Alex can be."
But still, even the Yankees' manager couldn't resist adding about Game 6, "Tomorrow would be a great day for him to have four or five hits, maybe some long balls."
Ah, the long ball. A-Rod hasn't had one of those since Sept. 29 in Toronto, a span of 11 games -- the last three regular-season games and the eight they've played so far in the postseason -- and 51 at-bats.
His batting average for the American League Division Series sweep over the Minnesota Twins was a respectable .273, but his entire output consisted of three singles, one an infield hit, in 11 at-bats. His one RBI came on a sacrifice fly in Game 2.
He has doubled his RBI total in the AL Championship Series but has managed just three hits in 17 at-bats so far, and his two-run single in Game 1 looked like a playable ball for Texas Rangers third baseman Michael Young, who matador-ed it. Rodriguez's on-base percentage is a not-terrible .333 thanks to three walks and a hit-by-pitch, and his ground-rule double in Game 5 indicated that perhaps things are about to turn around.
But so far, Rodriguez has been nearly invisible in the Yankees' lineup, overshadowed by Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter, and protected somewhat by Mark Teixeira, who was 0-for-14 before going down with a hamstring injury.
Such lack of production would have brought outrage, accusations and ridicule last October. This October, they barely rate a shrug of the shoulders.
"Without a doubt," A-Rod said. "But things have changed a lot for me over the past two years."
At that, he went into his canned speech, delivered several times this season, that the perception of fans and even teammates toward him has changed after his mea culpa over the performance-enhancing drug revelations of spring 2009 and his return from hip surgery in May of last season. "I think that was a big turning point," he said.
It also could be that Yankees fans expect less of A-Rod than they once did, following a regular season in which he hit 30 home runs for the 13th consecutive season but went through several long homerless droughts. At the same time, the emergence of Cano as an MVP-caliber hitter and the depth of the Yankees' lineup have taken a lot of the focus off Rodriguez.
In fact, during one stretch in which Rodriguez was on the disabled list with a strained hip flexor, the Yankees won 12 of 15 games with Cano in A-Rod's customary cleanup spot.
But these things no longer seem important, and the Yankees universe no longer seems to revolve around the rock-star third baseman. He is now an adjunct to an already-potent lineup rather than its linchpin.
"He's been awesome," Rodriguez said of Cano. "For me, he's been the most valuable player in our league, all year long."
Now, A-Rod's value seems to be more that of an elder statesman. As many of his teammates whooped it up in Toronto the night the Yankees clinched a playoff spot -- and ironically, the night before A-Rod's last home run -- he emerged from a back room bone-dry after all the champagne had run out.
"That stuff is for the young," said Rodriguez, who turned 35 in July. "Let them celebrate it."
The implication was that he had been there and done that.
Now, he at times assumes the role of a cautionary voice in the clubhouse. "I like the energy we played with yesterday," he said of the 7-2 Game 5 victory at Yankee Stadium that seemed to renew the belief that yes, the Yankees could come back and win this thing after all.
"I think we need to play to the caliber that we've played all year," he said. "With the exception of maybe [Curtis] Granderson [3-for-4, HR, 2 RBIs], nobody did anything spectacular. But from the first pitch of the game we were enthused, a lot of energy, good at-bats. I'd like to see more of that."
A year ago, a lot of people would have been saying the same things A-Rod is saying now.
Only difference is, they would have been saying them about him.
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