Commentary

Whew! The Yankees needed that one

Tuesday's slump-busting win in Tampa offered encouraging signs for A-Rod & Co.

Updated: May 18, 2011, 1:10 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- A lot of unusual things happened at Tropicana Field in the course of a game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night.

Alex Rodriguez hit two home runs in one game, something he had previously done 58 times in his career, although not since last September.

Brett Gardner bunted successfully for a base hit, something seemingly he hadn't been able to do all season.

The ever-smiling Ivan Nova fired his glove against the wall after leaving a bases-loaded mess for David Robertson to clean up in the sixth inning, and the equally placid Robertson did his best Joba Chamberlain impression, pumping a fist after wriggling out of it with two huge strikeouts.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez's two home runs helped the Yankees to an early lead in Tampa.
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaAlex Rodriguez's two home runs helped the Yankees to an early lead in Tampa.

And, oh yeah, the Yankees won a ballgame, something they hadn't done in a full week.

Our long municipal nightmare is finally over. The Yankees will not go 20-142 after all. Their run of six straight losses, which felt more like 60, came to an end with Tuesday night's 6-2 win over the Rays, and leave it to Joe Girardi, master of understatement and serial mumbler of platitudes, to put the proper flourish on it.

"This was a big win for us," the manager said. "It was, I don't want to say a must-win, but it was as close as you can come to a must-win in the month of May."

That is why he used Mariano Rivera in a rare non-save situation, having given Amaury Sanit ample opportunity to slam the door on the Rays in the ninth, only to stop fiddling around when the kid from Cuba gave up a run and had a baserunner on second with two outs.

"I just really felt as if we needed to win this game, so I just felt like I had to do that," Girardi said, and he was right.

This was a bad week for the Yankees, as bad a week as they have experienced in his three-plus seasons as their manager. It had to end, and soon.

And end it did, although not without a scare or two, as when Kelly Shoppach's towering fly ball in the ninth had Brett Gardner wobbling drunkenly beneath the catwalk 100 feet above the field, allowing the Rays to argue that the ball had nicked it on the way down, which under the ground rules for this circus tent disguised as a ballpark would have been a home run.

But the ball was eventually ruled a routine fly out, a fate the Rays could have only hoped would befall the two shots that A-Rod sent out of the ballpark in the fourth and fifth innings, a pair of solo trippers that snapped a 2-for-17 skid, including eight strikeouts, since his last home run on May 12.

Afterward, Rodriguez lapsed into the kind of technobabble he favors when the subject is hitting, talking about "synergy" between the upper and lower halves of his body, and "quieting down" his swing, the result of "a lot of really good sessions" with hitting coach Kevin Long.

Eventually, he admitted what was obvious for everyone at The Trop to see in his reaction to the first home run, a shot into the left-field seats off a James Shields changeup. "It felt great," he said. "Really, really great. This was desperation time. We definitely needed to win a game."

Before the game, sitting in the Yankees' dugout, A-Rod felt like talking. And he felt like talking not about baseball, but boxing.

"What makes this guy Pacquaio so good?" he asked a reporter he knew had covered a fair number of fights.

"Relentlessness," he was told. "Determination. Viciousness."

With each adjective, his eyes got wider. Then, he went out and channeled his inner PacMan, swinging for the KO on every pitch, and later he would say that when he ripped a 3-2 pitch right at the third baseman in his first at-bat, he knew he was coming out of the funk he had been in for the past month.

"I thought my first at-bat set the tone," he said. "I was happy with every swing I took tonight, and I felt like my legs were under me. Just like a boxer."

Long agreed that for the first time since his excellent spring training, Rodriguez's swing was consistently good the entire game. "His swing was that compact, explosive A-Rod swing that I'm used to seeing," Long said. "It just seemed like some of the stuff he's been trying to do for the past couple of weeks he was able to do tonight. It took him much longer than he wanted it to or than I wanted it to, but maybe it's back now."

It would be foolish, of course, to declare A-Rod "fixed" anymore than Derek Jeter was "fixed" after his excellent four-hit, two-HR game in Texas 10 days ago. (Including an infield hit Tuesday night, Jeter is 6-for-35 -- .138 -- since).

But it would be just as foolish to ignore the fact that without the threat of A-Rod's bat in the middle of the Yankees' lineup, their offense is a lot less fearsome. And it is certainly tempting to imagine how different things might be if Alex Rodriguez starts hitting the way he was hitting back in March during spring training, when a lot of people were expecting him to put up an MVP-type regular season.

Right now, the numbers are barely acceptable -- .250-8-24 -- but the signs he showed at the plate Tuesday night are surely encouraging.

"He might not always get the results you want," Long said, "but as long as that swing is there, you can live with it, because you know what's coming."

Rodriguez's night was the highlight of a game in which Ivan Nova vastly improved on his last outing but still showed discomforting signs of the pitcher he was last year, working deep into counts, throwing too many pitches, but unable, once again, to make it out of the sixth inning.

He limited the damage to one run, with a huge assist from Robertson's performance, a stint Girardi called "big-time pitching."

Girardi and the Yankees also had to be encouraged by the hitting of Jorge Posada, in his first appearance since his one-game sitdown strike after being dropped to ninth in the batting order Saturday night against the Boston Red Sox. Posada had two hits -- a single and a double -- before leaving for a pinch-runner in the seventh.

"It just feels good to be back in the lineup," he said.

Gardner had three hits, including that bunt single that led to a run in the seventh, and even Chris Dickerson, who was recalled from Triple-A Scranton to replace the injured Rafael Soriano and endured a nightmarish travel day to arrive at the park about three hours before game time, chipped in with a bloop single that drove in a run.

It all added up to a good day that started badly, with the news that Soriano, the high-priced setup man the Yankees signed this winter, was headed to the 15-day DL with a sore elbow.

"We really needed this," Girardi said. "We hadn't been out there in a week to shake hands, and it was getting frustrating."

•••

Rodriguez's 59th multi-homer game placed him seventh on baseball's all-time list (Babe Ruth is the king with 72) and his 26 as a Yankee placed him fifth (Ruth had 68 in pinstripes). ... Nick Swisher missed the game with an upset stomach. ... Joba Chamberlain followed Robertson and got four outs, allowing one hit, and Girardi hinted he might once again be the eighth-inning guy in Soriano's absence. "I think Joba has pitched well," Girardi said. "He's the kind of guy you'd like to use in the eighth inning all the time." However, having pitched three days in a row, the manager ruled him out of the opener of the two-game series that begins in Baltimore on Wednesday night. "You won't see him," Girardi said. "He'll be at the park, but you won't see him on the field." ... Gardner said Shoppach's ball "definitely did not hit the catwalk," a determination the umpires agreed with after a four-minute delay for a video review. ... Bartolo Colon (2-2, 3.74) opens the Baltimore series against LHP Zach Britton (5-2, 2.42), 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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