Commentary

A-Rod turns 35, can't turn away Tribe

Slugger still stuck on 599 homers after making final out of Yankees' loss in Cleveland

Updated: July 28, 2010, 10:21 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CLEVELAND -- All things considered, Alex Rodriguez could have had a worse birthday than the one he wound up having Tuesday night.

His birthday hat could have been a golden sombrero. He could have been turning 45 instead of 35. Cameron Diaz could have left Progressive Field with Josh Tomlin, the 25-year-old Indians starter who handcuffed all of the Yankees' hitters, not just the one batting cleanup. He could have had to spend his birthday in an even more depressed city than Cleveland. Like, maybe Detroit.

It wasn't as bad as all that. Still, it was bad enough, especially ending the way it did, with A-Rod, not only on the cusp of 600 home runs but at the center of attention at the key moment of the game -- ninth inning, his team down by three runs, and two Yankees on the basepaths just waiting for the guy they refer to as Big Al to drive them all in.

[+] EnlargeAlex Rodriguez
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesAlex Rodriguez, celebrating his 35th birthday, struck out three times and made the final out Tuesday.

But someone else would have to do Big Al's driving on this night. In what even his manager agreed would have been a fine time for Rodriguez to put all this home run hoopla behind him, and help his team win a game in the process, A-Rod rolled over an 0-1 slider from reliever Chris Perez, tapped it to shortstop, and ended the baseball portion of his birthday evening.

That capped yet another homerless night, his fifth since belting No. 599 in the seventh inning of a game at Yankee Stadium last Thursday, and ran his string to 20 at-bats without leaving the ballpark except by team bus. This is not, technically, a drought; so far this year, A-Rod has homered precisely every 22.375 at-bats. But if he goes beyond his third at-bat Wednesday night, the clock will begin ticking.

On the other hand, if there was any stretch of games in which it would have seemed a good bet that Alex Rodriguez would hit a home run, this would be that stretch. Friday night, he faced Brian Bannister, against whom he had hit three home runs in seven career at-bats. On Saturday, he faced Kyle Davies, against whom he had hit his 500th homer. Tuesday night, he faced a kid who was starting his first major league ballgame.

Still, he has been homeless since last Thursday and so far, 0-for-Cleveland.

"We're spending a lot of quality time lately," Rodriguez said good-naturedly to the group of reporters crowded around his locker. "A little too much."

That will change, of course, once he does what he has done 599 times previously, a task he considers so routine that he routinely claims never to think about it. Except that on Tuesday night, he admitted he has been thinking about it, and implied that may be affecting his ability to accomplish it.

"I think for me the biggest thing is to stay within the game and not try to do too much," he said. "A few times over the last two or three games I've kinda come out of it a little bit. I've been swinging a little too hard and maybe get a little pull-happy."

The other day, he swung so hard he nearly spun around, and afterward admitted he was doing his best Reggie Jackson imitation. Monday night, he took a fairly quiet collar, but was robbed of what should have been a hit on a sinking liner that clearly short-hopped left-fielder Trevor Crowe, but was ruled a catch and turned into a double play. Tuesday night, he took at least one huge hack that was intended for one purpose only, and in the seventh inning, a swing he thought should have ended his chase resulted in only a fairly routine fly ball that was caught just in front of the warning track in right-center.

"If we're at home, maybe that's 600," said Joe Girardi, who clearly can't get this whole milestone thing behind him and his team soon enough.

A-Rod, however, wasn't so sure. "I thought I hit it a little better than it showed," he said. "But I don't know if it would have been out at Yankee Stadium."

All that mattered is that it wasn't close to going out of Progressive Field, and as a result, the Yankees were never really close to winning this game. CC Sabathia, who hadn't lost since May 23 at Citi Field, wasn't close to sharp, but without allowing two unearned runs on an error by Francisco Cervelli in the fourth would have done his job, which is to keep the Yankees close enough to where A-Rod and his buddies could pull out the game.

But none of the Yankees bats could do anything with Tomlin, who held them to two hits through seven innings and left after allowing a leadoff double to Robinson Cano in the eighth. Cano came around to score after a wild pitch by reliever Rafael Perez and a groundout, and that was the sum total of the Yankees' offense.

Until, of course, the ninth inning, when Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter singled, setting the stage for all manner of birthday festivities.

"They gave us a chance and that's exactly what we wanted," Rodriguez said. "We got Swisher, Tex and myself coming up and we like that situation more often than not."

But Nick Swisher struck out on a slider and Mark Teixeira jumped on the first pitch and popped out to the second baseman. That left it up to the birthday boy to blow out all the candles. Instead, he blew out the rally with a tapper to shortstop. "I thought it would have been a fantastic present, but it didn't work out," Rodriguez said. "I've had some good birthdays. Tonight wasn't the greatest. But I'm still gonna enjoy it."

According to a team source, Ms. Diaz is in town and may even have been spotted around the team hotel. So even in defeat, Alex Rodriguez's 35th birthday may not have been a total loss.

GAME NOTES: This was the fifth time in their last six attempts that the Yankees have been beaten by a starter making his major league debut. Before Tomlin, the names were Jake Arrieta, Koji Uehara, Anibal Sanchez and Gustavo Chacin. ... Wednesday's matchup: A.J. Burnett (8-8, 4.77) versus RHP Fausto Carmona (10-7, 3.51).

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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