Commentary

A-Rod leaves fans cold, Jersey happy

Slugger falls short of 600 again -- thanks, in part, to Rutherford's Frank Herrmann

Updated: July 29, 2010, 2:14 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CLEVELAND -- Right now, Alex Rodriguez is grounded, like a wayward teenager under house arrest.

He hasn't been able to leave the yard all week, and heaven knows he has tried. Pretty soon, it will start to be said that he is trying too hard.

Wednesday night was the sixth game since Rodriguez hit his 599th home run, a level which, to hear him tell it, he reached totally by accident, because, he insists, he doesn't try to hit home runs and in fact doesn't even consider himself a home run hitter.

Alex Rodriguez
Andrew Weber/US PresswireAlex Rodriguez pulled second base out of the ground but couldn't lift his 600th homer out of Progressive Field on Wednesday night.

Watching him now, when he is most definitely trying to hit No. 600, you might be tempted to believe him.

In a game in which every Yankee not named Derek Jeter knocked the cover off the baseball, a game in which Robinson Cano hit a bomb and even Francisco Cervelli nearly left the building, Rodriguez, with more career home runs than all but six men who ever played the game, never even reached the warning track.

On some at-bats, he appeared patient, maybe even too patient, as in the third inning, when he left the bat on his shoulder for the first five pitches, running the count to 3-2 before striking out on a fastball from someone named Hector Ambriz.

On some at-bats, he appeared overeager, as in the second inning, when he jumped aboard the first pitch he saw from Fausto Carmona and popped out to the second baseman.

And on one particular at-bat, he appeared overmatched by a pitcher with all of six weeks of big league service and 20 major league innings on his résumé.

That at-bat, in the eighth inning, kept a decent number of the 22,965 fans who came to Progressive Field on a night when a thunderstorm delayed the start of the game for 42 minutes glued to their seats, even though the main argument had been laid to rest hours before.

If it is possible for a game to have a compelling moment when one team leads the other by eight runs, that confrontation between Rodriguez and Frank Herrmann was that moment.

That it was won by Herrmann -- who grew up 30 minutes from Yankee Stadium in Rutherford, N.J.; spent much of his undergraduate years at Harvard arguing with his roommates over the relative merits of the Yankees and Red Sox, and was called up from Triple-A only on June 4 -- elevated it from compelling to memorable.

Even Herrmann thought so. "It was a great moment," he said. "It was intense. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't aware of what was at stake. We're all aware of it. Look, no one wants to be 'The Guy,' you know, the guy who gives it up. I know that eventually it's going to happen, but on this particular night, I didn't want it to be me."

And so, in the final stages of an essentially meaningless game, Rodriguez and Herrmann embarked on a 10-pitch relationship that culminated with a baseball zooming in at 97 mph -- the ninth pitch of the at-bat that was clocked at 96 mph or faster -- and then floating lazily out into shallow right field, where Shelley Duncan easily tucked it away to end A-Rod's chase for another night.

Herrmann said that when he returned to the clubhouse, his phone was filled with text messages from friends back in New Jersey who had been watching the game on the YES Network. Most of them, he said, began, "It's a good thing you didn't walk him ..."

Told the at-bat lasted 10 pitches, Herrmann said, "It felt like 20." And he admitted that 97 mph is a neighborhood he doesn't always inhabit. "I might have been amped up a little bit," he said.

But that has been the story of A-Rod versus the Indians' pitching staff this entire series. In the first two games, Jake Westbrook, Josh Tomlin and both the Perezes, Rafael and Chris, held him hitless in his first eight at-bats. On Wednesday night, he led off with an RBI single against Carmona and added a sixth-inning double off Jess Todd, but at no point would even John Sterling have been tempted to start shouting, "It is high ... it is far ..."

And perhaps most incredibly, not once has he been walked in this series. He might yet hit No. 600 off the Indians, but if so, it will not be because any of their young pitchers is going to give in to him.

"You gotta pitch to him," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "Have you checked the guy [Cano] who hits behind him? He's on every pitch. He's hitting .330 and probably one of the best hitters in the big leagues right now. So that makes it a lot easier for us to go after [Rodriguez]. We're not gonna change our approach to try to stop Alex from hitting the 600 home runs."

On Thursday night, Rodriguez gets one more chance in Cleveland to join the 600 club, facing RHP Mitch Talbot (8-9, 4.08), against whom he is 1-for-2 in his career, and the one is not a home run. Although he has gone a respectable 8-for-26 with three doubles and six RBIs since last Thursday, he now has gone 26 at-bats between home runs, which qualifies as a drought even in this season of diminished power, a season in which A-Rod had homered about once in every 22 at-bats.

Still, he professes not to be worried, and in fact, he was as loose as he's been all season in the Yankees' clubhouse after the game.

"If I keep the frame of mind of trying to do the little things and help the team win, it's going to be a lot easier," he said. "I felt really good about my at-bats today. I got into deeper counts and saw more pitches. I thought my swing overall was a little shorter, and that's all good. I just know that overall I've been very surprised with how supportive the fans have been in Cleveland. All the signs and all the support, it's been pretty cool."

And yet, when he popped out to end another night without a home run, the portion of the crowd that wasn't grumbling was hastily heading for the exits.

But that's what happens when you set the bar as high as Alex Rodriguez has. Who else could go 2-for-5 with a double and an RBI in a game his team wins 8-0 and still send the fans home disappointed?

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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