NEW YORK -- A word of advice to anyone considering playing cards with Alex Rodriguez: The guy knows how to bluff.
Before Friday's night's game between the Mets and Yankees at Citi Field, the New York Yankees' third baseman was effusive in his praise of Jose Reyes.
"They have the world's greatest player right now playing shortstop over there, and most exciting," said A-Rod, who used to hold that title himself. "I turn on the TV every chance I get to watch him. He's all-world. All-world."
He even went so far as to say that if he didn't have to work this weekend, he would buy a ticket to watch Jose Reyes play baseball.
Of course, Alex Rodriguez's work gives him a better look at Jose Reyes in action than any fan could ever hope for. And it happened that about three hours later, the World's Greatest Player and his anointer came together at the key moment of the game -- the former using his trademark asset, his speed, to go from first to third on a routine flyout; the latter using what is now his best asset, his guile, to try to stop him.
"I think I just touched a little bit of his sleeve," Alex Rodriguez wold say later about the seventh-inning play that snuffed out the last real New York Mets hope in what went on to be a 5-1 Yankees victory.
With the Yankees leading, 3-1, Reyes led off the inning with an infield hit, his second of the night. Justin Turner hit a fly ball to fairly deep center field that Curtis Granderson ran down. Reyes tagged easily and went to second. Then, when Granderson's throw glanced off Eduardo Nunez's glove and bounded behind him, Reyes took off for third.
It was one of those plays where if he makes it, it's brilliant and daring and aggressive baseball, and if he doesn't, it's reckless and foolish and wasteful.
Nunez, who has a powerful, if scattershot, arm, recovered to fire a strike to A-Rod at third. The ball clearly arrived at the bag before Reyes did. What was less clear is whether A-Rod was able to get a tag on the fadeaway-sliding Reyes before he swept his hand over the base.
But A-Rod, with the guts of a gambler, was selling it hard. And home plate umpire Jerry Layne, who was a bit late scurrying up the line to make the call, was only too eager to buy.
Layne called Reyes out, igniting a mini-donnybrook that ended with Mets manager Terry Collins getting ejected. And the Mets, rather than having a runner on third with one out, were left with the bases empty and two outs. After Carlos Beltran walked, Daniel Murphy struck out, and that was essentially that.
"I saw the replay three or four times and I couldn't even tell then," A-Rod said, none-too-convincingly. Most people who saw it once were pretty sure. He missed the tag.
"I wasn't sure," he insisted. "I thought I had got a little bit of his sleeve. Whether I did or not, you guys had a better view than I did."
How anyone in the press box could have a better look at a bang-bang play like that than the man directly involved in was left unexplained.
All that was definite was that Alex Rodriguez had drawn to an inside straight and pulled it.
The play capped what used to be a typical A-Rod day -- a day on which his name surfaced in connection with a high-stakes illegal poker game in which he allegedly participated with four Hollywood stars. A-Rod refused to address the subject before the game, but a spokesman for commissioner Bud Selig's office confirmed to ESPNNewYork.com that Major League Baseball was investigating the game and A-Rod's involvement.
After the game, I asked Yankees manager Joe Girard how much he knew about it. "Not much," he said. "But I did see a picture of him in the newspaper playing cards with some kids at the Boys & Girls Club."
Whether this was Girardi's attempt at some humor also went unexplained. However, he agreed that, more often than not, when an important or pivotal or simply bizarre story arises around the Yankees, Alex Rodriguez is at the center of it.
"He's a lightning rod, isn't he?" Girardi said.
After the game, A-Rod took a long time before appearing at his locker. It is possible he was getting treatment on his troublesome right knee, which was wrapped with a large ice pack after the game.
Still, it did not hinder him in the field -- he made three sparkling plays at third base, two of which required him to dive to all fours, a movement he has said causes pain in his injured left shoulder -- or at bat; in the ninth inning, he had the chance to experience the kind of frustration David Wright and Jason Bay have come to know so well when his towering shot to left-center became a casualty of the odd Citi Field double-height wall.
The ball, which might have landed a dozen rows deep in the bleachers in Yankee Stadium, glanced off that 16-foot wall no more than a foot beneath the orange home run line. Instead of a home run, A-Rod had an RBI double, which drove in the Yankees' final run of the game.
Before the game, I asked Rodriguez -- who has admitted his first love was to play for the Mets -- if he would still want to be a Met playing in a park that devours home runs.
"It's a beautiful park, and the one thing about it is you can always adjust fences," he said. "You can always lower fences, so that's not something that's like a forever problem. So yeah, I think I could play here. I could play anywhere."
After the game, and the home run that wasn't, I re-posed my question. "I still love this park," he said. "It's beautiful."
Then as he was leaving the clubhouse, he turned back. Said the man with 626 career home runs: "Anyway, I got no pop."
That, too, was a bluff.
Friday night, Alex Rodriguez's poker face may just have helped the Yankees pull out a win.
NOTES: Ivan Nova did not pitch spectacularly -- 5 IP, 7 H, 1 ER -- but probably well enough to avoid losing his rotation spot to Phil Hughes, who is still a possibility to rejoin the team in time to make a start this coming week, perhaps in Cleveland on Wednesday. That is Nova's next day to pitch, but as Girardi said before the game, "They're probables. Not definites." After the game, Girardi said no decision had been made about whether Hughes will rejoin the team or be sent out for one more minor-league rehab start. He also praised Nova for working out of jams in the first and third innings. ... David Robertson pitched another perfect eighth and is unscored upon in his past nine games (9 2/3 innings). ... The win was the Yankees' sixth straight, their longest winning streak of the season. They remain 2 1/2 games ahead of the Red Sox, who beat the Astros, 7-5. ... The Yankees will have to make a roster move to clear a spot for Bartolo Colon to start Saturday afternoon's game. Girardi said he wasn't ready to announce it, but speculation is it will be Hector Noesi, who pitched to two batters in the ninth but was pulled in favor of Mariano Rivera after allowing a one-out single to Josh Thole. ... Eduardo Nunez had his first four-hit game, but also could have been charged with two errors -- one on the dropped throw from Granderson, had Reyes not been called out at third, and another when his throw on Reyes' grounder to deep short leading off the bottom of the first sailed over Mark Teixeira's head. It was ruled a hit. ... The Yankees' 1-2-3 hitters -- Nick Swisher, Granderson and Teixeira -- started fast, combining for three hits and two runs before Jonathon Niese could get an out in the first inning. But thereafter, they combined to go 0-for-9 with six strikeouts and three walks. ... Colon (5-3, 3.10) faces RHP Dillon Gee (8-1, 3.32) on Saturday afternoon, first pitch at 4:10 p.m.