Commentary

Mr. October? Rodriguez had better be

Still stuck on 599, Yankees slugger's homer slump hints at regular-season decline

Updated: August 4, 2010, 2:17 AM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Even with all eyes on him in August, it will always be about October with Alex Rodriguez.

What Rodriguez's endless chase for his 600th home run is exposing is who he is and how he will be judged from this point. It will be solely about what he does in the postseason, because he is no longer extra special in the regular season.

A-Rod still is a very good regular-season player -- maybe even great -- but not elite anymore. He is a borderline All-Star, not a starter.

He has conveniently switched from being all about personal goals to focusing on the team. It is a good time for him to do that because, as he said the other day, he "only has 16" homers on the season.

Rodriguez has seven years left on his contract. If you think this chase for 600 has gone a while, imagine what he is going to be like at the end of this deal -- if he is a Yankee, mind you, by then -- when he is 42.

So, unless there is a miraculous change in the aging process, the 35-year-old Rodriguez is likely not going to be the A-Rod who used to produce out-of-this-world numbers in the regular season. At this point -- following an 8-2 loss to the Blue Jays on Tuesday -- the Yankees probably would settle for one more home run to get this whole chase over.

On Wednesday, as the Yankees try to avoid the three-game sweep, A-Rod's homerless streak picks up at 46 at-bats and 12 games, while his hitless slump is at 17 at-bats.

This all coincides with the youthful Rays looking down at the second-place Yankees. Tampa is alone in first place for the first time since June.

But the only month that matters for Rodriguez and the Yankees is October, because the overall monster numbers for Rodriguez probably are gone. He is going to have to produce in the clutch, like he did in 2009, to truly earn the rest of his nearly $300 million contract.

Right now, it is hard to imagine Rodriguez ever hitting in the clutch again, because he looks lost at the plate. Before Tuesday's game, A-Rod said he felt fine as he played down being the only Yankee to miss the team photo.

After another 0-for-3 (he did lift a ball into the outfield!), he didn't talk. Yankees manager Joe Girardi did, and he tried to take the pressure off.

"It is easy for me to sit up here and say, 'This is what you should do,'" Girardi said. "But none of us have ever been in Alex's shoes and none have ever been at 599 home runs, so we really don't know what it feels like. You can say all the right things, but we don't know what it is like. It's going to happen."

Of course it is. But when is a guessing game most are tired of playing. The bigger issue is that Rodriguez, a year after admitting to performance-enhancing drug use and having hip surgery, appears to be slowing down.

He has tremendous RBI totals -- 85 entering Wednesday -- thanks largely to his average jumping to more than .300 with runners in scoring position. Overall, he is a .264 hitter at the moment. He has never hit worse than .285 in a full season.

He is on pace to hit 25 homers in 2010, which would be his lowest total since he was a skinny kid in Seattle in 1997. He hit 23 that year. In fairness, his RBI total is projected to be 133, which would be the fourth-best of his career.

Prior to the Tuesday's game, both Girardi and Rodriguez went out of their way to say A-Rod is swinging fine. But the visuals tell a different story.

Rodriguez looked off balance and distracted. As Girardi has pointed out endlessly, it is impossible to ignore that the umpires change to commemorative No. 600 balls when A-Rod comes up, that the camera flashes light up the stands and the crowd grows louder.

All this has culminated in Rodriguez looking unnerved. In the first, after Mark Teixeira hit a two-run bomb off Jays starter Ricky Romero, A-Rod came to the plate. He took a strike to start the at-bat before quickly getting in an 0-2 hole by missing a 75 mph curveball. He finally took a seat on the sixth pitch of the at-bat, a 1-2 curve in the dirt.

In the fourth, he again batted with no one on base. The usual ritual of the change of balls, flashes brightening the night and hopeful cheers made Rodriguez look like he did in the 2006 playoffs.

After being way in front on a Romero changeup, Rodriguez hit a soft-as-cotton liner that Aaron Hill caught at second. It was a meek effort.

With Romero cruising, Rodriguez didn't get another chance until the seventh inning. Leading off the frame, he put the ball in play and in the air. The 46,480 reacted as if this might be it.

Instead, center fielder Vernon Wells didn't have to move to make the catch. A-Rod again failed to hit No. 600.

But at least he has last October to fall back on.

Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE

MORE MLB HEADLINES