Commentary

A-Rod not a home run hitter? We'll see

Approaching 600 for his career, Yankees slugger says homers aren't his main goal

Updated: June 23, 2010, 3:39 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

PHOENIX -- Alex Rodriguez says he doesn't consider himself a home run hitter, which is sort of like Pamela Anderson saying she doesn't consider herself sexy.

It's the kind of statement you take with a great big grain of salt, because if Alex Rodriguez -- all alone among active players and seventh on the all-time home run list with 592 -- isn't a home run hitter, then who exactly is?

A-Rod has been playing down his ability -- or lately, his inability -- to hit the ball out of the ballpark with that kind of talk, but we all know why he is here, and why it exhausts the contents of a bank vault to cash his paycheck twice a month.

And yet, that is A-Rod's story and he is sticking to it, even after a night like Tuesday, when he crushed his first home run in since June 3 (a stretch of 49 at-bats) to set the tone for what would end up as a 9-3 Yankees rout of the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

Monday night, after the Yankees were beaten, 10-4, Rodriguez was asked about his relatively powerless season. A season in which he had hit just eight home runs (one fewer than a year ago this time) although in more than 100 more at-bats.

Alex Rodriguez
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireAlex Rodriguez had three RBIs in the Yankees' 9-3 win over the Diamondbacks on Tuesday.

"I'm not concerned about home runs," he had said, echoing an answer he has given in various forms all season. "I can hit five or six home runs in a week. By the end of the season, I'm sure I'll have exactly the number I have every year."

It was a variation on the "back of the baseball card" spiel Mark Teixeira has been using to shrug off concerns about his own slow start, and one he repeated in different words Tuesday night.

"I've never considered myself a home run hitter," he said. "What I do consider myself is a guy who drives in runs."

But the numbers of baseball are remarkably consistent, and for the first 16 seasons of his baseball life, A-Rod hit a home run about once every 14 at-bats. This season, it's once every 30 at-bats. At that pace, he will finish with somewhere between 20-25 home runs, possibly the lowest total since he became an everyday player in 1996.

The shot he hit Tuesday night, a high-arching blast on a 1-1 fastball from Dan Haren that landed deep in the left-field seats, doesn't do much to alter that ratio.

But the fact that for the first time since missing four games with what the Yankees called, somewhat ominously, tendinitis of the right hip flexor, it appeared that Rodriguez was able to use his legs to turn on a pitch and drive it was an encouraging sign that there could be more where that blast came from.

"I've been feeling a little better every day," he said. "That's a pitch that lately I've been grounding to third base or flying out to right on, so to put a good swing on it like I did and drive it to left-center is a good sign."

A-Rod put another good swing on a Haren fastball in the third, driving in the go-ahead run after Haren himself had tied the game with a bases-loaded double off Andy Pettitte in the bottom of the second.

"We knew he's a guy who strikes out a lot of guys with his [split-fingered fastball], so that's the pitch you have to lay off," he said. "He makes a living with that pitch."

And A-Rod, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, makes his living by the long ball. Certainly, he didn't earn his $250 million contract with the Texas Rangers, or the $275 million extension he got from the Yankees three years ago, to be a singles or even a doubles hitter.

In fact, a big motivation for the Yankees to extend him to 2017 was their hope that Rodriguez would pursue the all-time home run record in a Yankee uniform. That, of course, was before the steroid revelations put a taint on some of his best years, like the two 50-plus homer seasons he had for Texas in 2001 and 2002, making his numbers in many minds no more legitimate than those of the man he is chasing.

At this point, the Yankees just need A-Rod to be A-Rod, which means hitting home runs, and many of them. Before the game, Joe Girardi said he would be "shocked" if Rodriguez did not his 30 home runs this year. And afterward, seemed convinced that a flurry of A-bombs from A-Rod was just around the corner.

So, too, did Pettitte. "I think he's been looking really good at the plate," the lefty said. "His swing, I think, looks great. So hopefully, he'll get going and go on the kind of tear we all know he can."

He didn't mean a fielding tear or a stolen base tear or even an RBI tear. He meant a home run tear, because no one knows better than a pitcher that no one hits 600 home runs by accident.

"I've hit a lot of home runs, so I don't worry about them," Rodriguez said. "Kevin Long and I are spending long hours in the batting cage and we feel pretty good about what's about to happen."

Sounds like he thinks more home runs are on the way. That is, if Alex Rodriguez thought he were a home run hitter. Which, of course, he is not.

Game Notes
Pettitte pitched brilliantly -- seven innings, two earned runs, seven strikeouts -- in earning his ninth win but his ERA actually went up a tick, to 2.48, which tells you how well he has been pitching all season. He also had a single in the fifth inning, his first hit since singling home a run off Cole Hamels in Game 3 of the 2009 World Series. ... Colin Curtis, recalled from AAA Scranton on Monday, batted for Pettitte in the eighth and delivered his first major-league hit, a rocket to center over the head of Chris Young that delivered the first two RBIs of his career. Curtis, who played baseball for nearby Arizona State, had his parents and brother in the stadium -- they flew in from their home in Seattle -- as well as a bunch of friends from the neighborhood. ... Derek Jeter showed signs of emerging from his recent slide -- he was 6-for-36 coming in -- with two singles in five at-bats, including an infield hit that started the six-run eighth inning that broke the game open. ... Joba Chamberlain pitched a strong eighth, hitting 98 on the gun twice during a strikeout of Justin Upton. ... Girardi pulled both Rodriguez and Jeter late in the game for what he said were strictly precautionary reasons. ... Wednesday's pitching matchup: RHP Javier Vazquez (6-6, 5.01) vs. LHP Dontrelle Willis (2-2, 4.78).

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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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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