Commentary

A-Rod's marvelous, meaningless March

He's rocketing balls over the wall, but Yanks slugger knows spring don't mean a thing

Updated: March 20, 2011, 9:30 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez has now hit in all 13 of the spring training games in which he has played. He has knocked in at least one run in each of the past seven. He has homered in four of his past five. His Grapefruit League average stands at a gaudy .432, his slugging percentage an unrealistic 1.000.

Already, there are probably thousands of Yankees fans -- and you know who you are -- all over the New York metropolitan area ready to award him his fourth MVP award before a real pitch has been thrown or a real game has been played.

But A-Rod knows that in baseball, they don't name candy bars after Mr. March, and even in an age in which just about every word, number or statistic ever recorded is just a mouse click away, it's still not that easy to find out what a ballplayer did in a previous spring training, and besides, nobody really cares.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
Matt Stamey/US PresswireAlex Rodriguez has homered in four of his past five games, but he knows his spring stats are no guarantee he'll be back in MVP form all season long.

"I've always said, I don't put much stock into spring training stats one way or another," Rodriguez said Sunday afternoon, after hitting a double and a home run in the Yankees' 8-1 win over the Phillies. "I mean, it wouldn't surprise me if I was hitting .100 or .400. It's pretty much the same thing."

What he means is, no matter how well he hits in Florida, we reset the odometer to zero when the regular season begins on March 31 in the Bronx.

And then, and only then, will anything Alex Rodriguez, or any of his teammates, does have any real significance.

What we are seeing right now is not necessarily the prelude to a great season, nor is it any guarantee that Rodriguez, who over the past three years has gone from one of the most explosive hitters in baseball history to merely a very good, productive hitter, is about to return to the kind of season that first caused the Texas Rangers and later, the Yankees, to commit nearly a half-billion dollars to him.

A-Rod knows as well as anyone that what his first 13 games of the spring represent is a once-great hitter enjoying a very hot streak, nothing more, nothing less.

And while he talks about feeling healthier than he has in years -- and his body is noticeably leaner than it has been since 2007, the last time he won an MVP -- the truth is this run is as much an illusion as it will be when he inevitably struggles through an 0-for-20 stretch during the season.

That is the cyclical nature of the game and the discipline of hitting. No player can stay as hot as A-Rod has been this spring. The best the Yankees and their fans can hope for is that there are enough of these kinds of streaks during the season that by the end, when all the numbers are totaled, they add up to the kind of season Rodriguez used to put up on a regular basis.

At 35 -- he will turn 36 in July -- that may be too much to expect and too much to ask. But when he was asked after the game if he would prefer to save some of the bullets he has been firing all over Florida for the regular season, Rodriguez just laughed.

"Nah, nah," he said. "I hope I still got a few left. I've done it before. I've done it for a long time. And I hope that will continue."

There are, of course, reasons to hope that this is more than just March Madness. The most important one is that A-Rod says he is finally beyond the torn hip labrum that resulted in surgery two springs ago and cost him the first six weeks of the 2009 season.

The recovery from that injury, he said, lagged over into 2010, in which he hit just 30 home runs although he did knock in 125. "Last year, we were just rehabbing about 75 percent of my time," he said. "And if you're spending all that time rehabbing, that's less time you can put into your game."

This spring he says he spent less time at the physical therapist and more time in the gym and the batting cage. He came to camp 10 pounds lighter and, according to hitting coach Kevin Long, showed signs back in January that he had regained much of the power-generating hip rotation and leg drive that he had lost due to the injury.

"This is the best I've felt in a few years," he said.

"He's seeing the ball good, his body's working good, his mechanics are good, he has all the freedom that he needs in his hips, and that's all good stuff," Joe Girardi said. "At times we didn't see it last year. At times he fought it."

And even Girardi, another graduate of the "spring training numbers mean nothing" school, had to admit that A-Rod's numbers this spring have been difficult to dismiss.

"No, you can't ignore these numbers," Girardi said. "And the way he's driving the baseball is what you're used to seeing from Alex and that you can't ignore."

Rodriguez's second-inning double was smoked into the right-center field gap off Joe Blanton, but it was his home run, a line shot that traveled from home plate to the Phillies' bullpen in a millisecond, that tempted you to believe that maybe he could turn back the clock this year.

Already this week, he hit one over the scoreboard in left-center at Steinbrenner Field and another over the batter's eye. Except for the month in which they were hit, there was nothing cheap or fluky about those home runs. They were, in a word, crushed.

"Hopefully, this carries over into April," Rodriguez said. "But you can't get emotional about it. It's like a stock, you know? You can't look at it every day. If you have a good stock, you look at it after six months. You can't really just look at a two-week period."

But on a perfect day for baseball, 79 degrees and sunny, and in the wake of a pretty much flawless Yankees performance -- starting pitcher works into the seventh inning, leadoff hitter gets two hits, cleanup hitter drops a bomb -- it wasn't difficult to look at Alex Rodriguez's past two weeks and imagine it stretching all the way to October.

"Just stay right where you're at, Alex, and we'll leave it at that," Girardi said, knowing that was impossible, but hoping just the same.

NOTES: In his second-to-last outing of the spring, CC Sabathia went 6⅔ innings, allowed six hits and just one run, on a home run by Jimmy Rollins. He struck out five, walked one and threw 85 pitches. Girardi said he would be scaled back in innings and pitch count for his final spring training start next Saturday in preparation for his start on Opening Day. ... Brett Gardner, leading off ahead of Derek Jeter for the second time this spring, had two hits and drove in a run with a seventh-inning single. Jeter went 1-for-4. "We're going to continue to do it," Girardi said of batting Gardner and Jeter 1-2. "It's something that we'll sit down and have a meeting about pretty soon, probably in the next week and talk about what we all think about it and go from there. But it's an experiment that we're willing to try right now." ... Rafael Soriano pitched a 1-2-3 eighth and Boone Logan, who Girardi expected to miss four or five days after suffering back spasms Friday morning, returned to action in the ninth and struck out the side. ... Girardi was encouraged to see Mark Teixeira, a notoriously slow starter, hit a home run from the left side in the fourth inning just before A-Rod's blast. "Tex worked really hard this winter to get himself going right away, and it's paying off," Girardi said. ... Eric Chavez, who surely must have done enough to cement a backup infielder role by now, had an RBI double. His average is .371. ... Monday night's game is against the Rays in Port Charlotte, a two-hour bus ride from the Yankees' complex in Tampa. Bartolo Colon, in probably his last start of the spring, faces RHP Jeremy Hellickson. No TV or radio for this one, first pitch at 7:05 p.m.

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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