Commentary

A-Rod auditions for next captain role

As Jeter stews over off-day, Rodriguez plays clubhouse leader after Yankees' loss

Updated: April 23, 2012, 8:33 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

DETROIT -- Alex Rodriguez may not be the New York Yankees' captain, but lately he has taken to playing the role of one in the clubhouse.

Derek Jeter, of course, is the real captain, and with A-Rod, you are never sure if what you are getting is genuine or the baseball equivalent of an actor portrayal.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireAlex Rodriguez's contract runs through 2017, while Derek Jeter's ends in 2014 ...

But if you had stumbled from an alternate universe into the visitor's clubhouse at Comerica Park after the Yankees had dropped their third straight game to the Detroit Tigers, 6-3, on Thursday afternoon, it would have been easy to mistake the tall fellow in the light gray suit in the right corner of the room as just another player, and the slightly taller fellow in the charcoal suit holding court along the left-hand wall as the boss.

Here was Jeter, given the day off against his will by his manager, rolling his suitcase toward the team bus, head down and uninterrupted by reporters, while five yards away, A-Rod was taking on the various roles of clubhouse greeter, maitre d' and team spokesman.

Spotting a scrum of reporters waiting to interview Eduardo Nunez, Jeter's replacement for the day at shortstop who made the error that cost the Yankees the game, A-Rod was quick to offer his assistance.

"You guys are going to need some help," he said to the group. Then he summoned a Spanish-speaking team employee to serve as Nunez's interpreter.

A few moments later, after Nunez had mumbled out his mea culpa, it was A-Rod's turn to act as the elder statesman of the clubhouse, delivering a de facto pep talk to Nunez, expounding on the nuances of playing shortstop -- you will remember he used to play the position a long time ago -- and taking the time to remind his listeners, "Hitting is something I know how to do very well."

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images... meaning A-Rod could still be a Yankee long after The Captain is gone.

It was a remarkable performance, poised and articulate and not a little presumptuous, but it was perhaps more than that. Rodriguez, of course, has a contract that will keep him in Yankee pinstripes until 2017. Jeter, who just came through a contentious contract negotiation this winter, has a deal that runs out three years earlier.

Unless something momentous happens to change the future course of Yankee history, Alex Rodriguez is likely to be playing for the Yankees after Jeter has retired to his compound in Tampa, or is doing color commentary for the YES Network, or -- the most dreadful possibility of all -- has moved on to another team, the way Babe Ruth finished up his career in the costume of the Boston Braves.

As such, someone is going to have to succeed Jeter as the Yankees' captain, and from the looks of things, A-Rod has tossed his cap into the race.

Perhaps he is practicing for his long-term future with the ballclub, or perhaps there is something else at work here. But whatever is motivating Alex Rodriguez, it is obvious that he has chosen to assume a far more active role in the clubhouse, as Jeter has grown more reticent.

Before the game, Jeter was clearly upset with not being in the starting lineup the day after having been removed in the eighth inning of a game after manager Joe Girardi sensed the shortstop was suffering from a hip injury.

But A-Rod had no problem with the manager's decision to give him a day off, a respite that was cut short just four innings into the game when Eric Chavez suffered a broken toe running the bases.

"I think Joe and I are going to be very smart on the number of games I play," he said, speaking as though they were co-managers. "The target is 145-150 games, regardless of how I'm swinging the bat."

Lately, A-Rod has not been swinging the bat very well -- he was 5-for-his-past-40 after Wednesday night, perhaps another reason for the off-day -- but singled twice in his two at-bats after replacing Chavez and scored the Yankees' final run of the game in the ninth inning.

So he had already staked out his position before the game as compliant employee. Now, after the game, he assumed the role of statesman.

Asked if he planned to speak privately with Nunez, a 24-year-old in his first full season in the major leagues, A-Rod furrowed his brow and said solemnly, "That's already been handled."

"Nunie is a great young player and the one thing we don't want him to lose is confidence," Rodriguez said. "He's done a lot of things that we're very proud of. He brings a lot of electricity not only to our lineup but to our bench and to our roster. So we basically conveyed a really positive message to him. We want him to continue to be assertive, attack the baseball and he's going to be fine. Most young shortstops go through it."

He then launched into a wonderfully detailed critique on what Nunez did wrong on the play in which, with Tigers on second and third and one out in the seventh and the Yankees and A.J. Burnett trailing 3-2, he airmailed a routine throw over Mark Teixeira's head at first, allowing both runners to score.

"I think for him, depth is an issue," A-Rod said. "I think he can play a little more shallow. The problem is, by the time he catches the ball, the runner's already at first base, and it puts a lot of pressure on your throw. If you can give Tex a little bit more margin for error, even if he jumps for that ball he can come down and it's an easy out. I made a lot of the same mistakes. He'll get it."

Asked if the strength of Nunez's arm was a factor in his erratic play -- he had made another, non-damaging, throwing error in the fourth inning -- A-Rod got the chance to flex his middle infielder's muscles.

"You don't play shortstop with your arm, you don't play an infield with your arm," he said. "Arm is just a plus. Infield is only played with your legs. You got to come and get the ball, you got to narrow the path. You got to narrow the throw. If you're throwing 160 feet every time, it's a lot of pressure. If you make it 135 feet it's an easier play. It's a little complex when you're trying to explain it, but he'll get it in time. He's gonna be just fine."

Teixeira essentially confirmed Rodriguez's reading of the play, saying he was "in-between" on the throw, not sure whether to jump and concede both the out and at least one run, or try to reach up for the ball and maybe save the play. He opted for the latter but was able to do neither and after those two runs scored, it was game, set and match for the game and the series.

The Yankees came in having won four of their past five, the Tigers having lost six in a row. Now, they depart one another's company having reversed roles, the Tigers savoring a three-game winning streak, the Yankees lamenting a rare series loss as well as their first three-game losing streak of the season.

"There's no question that this has not been a pretty series for us," Rodriguez said. "We take a lot of pride in playing good fundamental baseball and we have not done that in the last three or four days, but we expect to get back in the saddle starting tomorrow."

Spoken like a true captain, a position Alex Rodriguez may not yet own, but certainly seems to be trying on.

NOTES: Burnett held the Tigers hitless for five innings, but allowed a first-inning run after hitting Don Kelly, the leadoff batter with a pitch and then sending him to third with an errant pickoff throw that got past Teixeira. Kelly scored on a sacrifice fly. Burnett held the Tigers in check -- they tied the game at 2 in the sixth -- until the disastrous three-run seventh of which just one run was earned. Although Burnett (4-2) took the loss, his ERA dropped from 3.93 to 3.71. "I pretty much threw the ball where I wanted to today, with conviction," he said. "To let it get away from me there in the seventh, that sucks. I can say sucks, right?" ... Boone Logan allowed the Tigers' final run on a solo home run by Brennan Boesch leading off the eighth. ... The Yankees' bats, which had been dormant for the first two games of the series, showed some life, with eight hits, but they left eight runners on base and aside from the fourth inning, when Chavez tripled in Curtis Granderson and Nunez singled in A-Rod (running for Chavez), they failed to get the timely hit. ... Rodriguez could not remember the last time he entered a game as a pinch runner. Informed it was June 19, 1995, when as a 19-year-old Seattle Mariner, he came in to run for Tino Martinez, A-Rod whistled. "That's a long time ago," he said. "For Tino? That makes sense. Sorry, Tino." ... Girardi said Jeter would play in Friday night's game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas. ... Ivan Nova (2-2, 5.14) gets the start against LHP Matt Harrison (3-3, 4.59), first pitch at 8:05 p.m. ET.

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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