NEW YORK — It had been a considerable amount of time since Alex Rodriguez last hit a home run at Yankee Stadium. In fact, you could have come to 38 home games between his last one, on April 17 against his former team, the Seattle Mariners, and the one he hit in the second inning Monday night against the Baltimore Orioles. More than three months had passed in between. Ninety-one home at-bats, which matches the numbers of days in between “A-Bombs from A-Rod.” A lot of duds in-between.
Over the course of those three-months-and-a-day, Rodriguez lost half his job as the everyday DH, his role reduced to that of a $21 million platoon player against left-handed starters. New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi wouldn’t call it a demotion, but there was no other way to look at it, and if there was any question of how much it stung, all you had to do was watch A-Rod taking grounders at first base, something he was loath to do last year, to know.
So Rodriguez could be forgiven for taking a moment to admire his handiwork after the ball left his bat and rose in a high arc toward the left-field seats, because in truth, the guy might have forgotten what such a sight truly looked like. He had hit other home runs, of course, all in opposing ballparks, but even the last one was precisely a month in his rear-view mirror, having come in a game against the Twins in Minneapolis on June 18.
And it should come as no surprise that when asked to choose a word to describe his emotions — Relief? Satisfaction? Exhilaration? — the word he chose was “surprise.”
“I haven’t hit a ball like that in a long time,” he said. “It certainly felt good. A lot of times you come out and do work and you don’t get results; you may get a walk or a base hit. But to get a ball in the air feels really good.”
A-Rod had done his work before the game, performing a hitting drill that was commonplace around here when Kevin Long was the hitting coach and Robinson Cano was the second baseman, the one in which they bisect home plate with a screen, forcing the hitter to shorten his swing or get tangled in mesh. Long called it the “home run drill” and exactly as the name implies, it was designed to produce home runs.
Whether that was what did it or if it was merely the coincidental result of the serendipitous collision of bat and 94 mph inside fastball, only A-Rod knows. And whether the shot will provide a jolt to his largely comatose bat, and the Yankees’ generally anemic offense, for what’s left of the season remains to be seen. What we know for sure is that the solo homer — No. 9 of the season for Rodriguez and No. 696 of his career — provided a key run in the Yankees’ 2-1 win in the first of four games against the AL East-leading Orioles.
“He’s a big part of our team,” said Brian McCann, who drove in what proved to be the winner with a third-inning sacrifice fly. “He hits in the middle of the order and when he steps in the box, he makes a pitcher work regardless of what he’s hitting. That was one of the best swings I’ve seen him take in a while. It was an amazing swing.”
There haven’t been too many of them from A-Rod this season. He is batting just .216 and his OPS is a sickly .631, second-lowest on the team behind Mark Teixeira‘s .568. The failure of those two to come close to their production of a year ago, when they combined for 64 home runs, is a major reason why the Yankees are a lot more likely to hold a fire sale than host a playoff game this season.
But there was a feeling in the Yankees’ clubhouse that if A-Rod could somehow get it going, maybe the season wouldn’t be a total loss after all. It’s probably a fool’s folly since the Yankees are still 7½ games out of first place and languish behind four other teams for the second wild-card spot. Rodriguez will turn 41 in nine days. The team’s best hitter, Carlos Beltran — who at .303 is the club’s only .300 hitter — is 39 and the Yankee Most Likely to be Traded, especially if he keeps producing the way he did Monday night, when he had three hits, including a double. Teixeira is mired at .186, and hurt again, his left ankle heavily taped after he fouled a pitch off it Friday night. And truthfully, there’s barely another dangerous bat in the lineup.
Still, it had to be a rewarding night for A-Rod, because even when you’ve hit nearly 700 of them it’s got to be alarming to go a month between home runs, let alone three months at a launching pad like Yankee Stadium 3.0. The past weekend was supposed to be his chance for a new beginning, three consecutive starts and two against left-handers after having been benched for nine of the Yankees’ 10 games leading up to the All-Star break. But all Rodriguez could manage was one hit in 10 at-bats against the Red Sox, and that was an infield hit, a dribbler that traveled all of 40 feet.
“It’s been a struggle,” he said. “I’ve been really bad this year. I’ve been working my butt off and just haven’t been able to figure it out.”
And it might be that he still hasn’t. But for one night at least, he did something that he used to do with regularity, and he did it with the kind of flair that even overshadowed the spectacle of seeing Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman airmail a pitch to the backstop that was clocked at a ridiculous 105 mph. In fact, a measure of how impressive A-Rod’s home run was to be seen in his next at-bat, when Orioles starter Kevin Gausman — against whom Rodriguez had come in batting .455, 5-for-11 with two home runs — walked him on four pitches, or his third at-bat, when Gausman sent him sprawling with an 0-2 fastball that buzzed in at 98 mph.
“It’s good to see Alex taking his A-swing and doing some damage tonight,” Beltran said. “That has been his game all his life. We all know what A-Rod does.”
But he hadn’t done it in a long time and in this game, it’s all too easy to forget. With one swing of the bat Monday night, Alex Rodriguez provided Yankees fans with a potent reminder of who he used to be, and who he might still be again.