A-Rod can rescue Yanks, himself
Slugger can overcome controversy, earn team success
NEW YORK -- It is now time for Alex Rodriguez to ride to the rescue, in the manner of those intrepid, courageous, punctual U.S. cavalrymen in the old Westerns.
What is needed right now with the Yankees does very much resemble a rescue. On Thursday night, the Bombers lost their fifth straight game, 8-6, to the Rays. This was an unusual and particularly painful loss, coming as Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria hit back-to-back ninth-inning homers off Mariano Rivera.
This is the Yankees' first five-game losing streak in the relatively brief tenure of manager Joe Girardi. New York is now 13-15. That is not a desperately bad record, and the season is still young. But when you are under .500 and trending downward, few causes for optimism can be located.
Adding to the general dismay is the matter of the 0-5 start against the Red Sox. The last time the Sox swept the Yankees in the first two series of a season, in which there was a total of at least five games played, was in 1912. That was the year in which Fenway Park opened. True, the Red Sox went on to win the World Series that year, but it was so long ago that the Yankees were the Highlanders.
And there are injuries to crucial personnel. The Yankees are not the only team with injuries, but the absence, for instance, of catcher Jorge Posada, both as a lineup and clubhouse presence, is particularly damaging. And on Thursday night, backup catcher Jose Molina left the game with a strained left quadriceps.
So here comes Rodriguez, arguably the most talented player in the game, returning sooner than expected from hip surgery. He will be bringing all of those talents back to the Bombers as the team arrives in Baltimore for three games, and presumably a fresh start, against the Orioles.
"None of us is asking him to be a savior," Girardi said Thursday night. "All we're asking Alex is to be Alex."
No, the Yankees are not explicitly asking Rodriguez to be a savior. But they are asking him to be somewhere between tremendous and incredible.
Some would say that what the Yankees really need right now, even more than a superstar third baseman, would be at least two more really solid relief pitchers. In fact, the starting pitchers haven't been a source of great deeds, either. The Yankees have a team ERA of 5.85, which is 13th in the American League, 29th in the Major Leagues and not good enough to win anything at this level.
This is the Yankees' core problem now. An eager public is waiting for CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett to start pitching up to their contracts. In the other half of the game, there is a need for first baseman Mark Teixeira to start hitting up to his contract.
But this is not a moment when another $423.5 million can be spent on three free agents. Rodriguez and his prodigious talents are returning. Baseball life for the Yankees, one way or another, should improve. The Bombers are not the only ones who feel this way.
"He makes everyone around him better," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "He really does. When the lineup is sent over, you look at all the names and you look at the spots where you may be able to pitch around somebody. Or, 'Who do I walk to get to the next guy? Who do I not want to beat us tonight?' All those things.
"Now you place his name in that lineup where it normally is, that makes the guys in front of him better and the guys in back of him better. He carries a lot of that weight. He'll make a huge difference. I mean, I don't know what he looks like swinging the bat right now, but when he's at his normal level of play, he makes a huge difference in the lineup."
Last year, for the first time since the mid-'90s, the Yankees fell from the status of a postseason team. Now they have had an unimpressive beginning to this season. But they cannot be taken less seriously by the opposition. And they are not. They are still the Yankees. Their talent level remains impressive.
Maddon's Rays, for instance, were baseball's breakthrough story last season, winning the AL East, then winning the AL pennant. But they were a mere 7-11 against the Yankees.
"They match up really well against us," Maddon said. "Primarily, it's what you saw, that they can come back on you at any time. In spite of the fact that they're missing some key people right now, they're still playing at a pretty good level. I have a lot of respect for what they're doing. I know they're banged up, but they still give you a solid nine innings."
So the Yankees, despite these recent struggles, have not lost their credibility, their reputation, their place at the table. And now, A-Rod returns.
Of course, this will not be a standard, straightforward happy homecoming. Rodriquez will be greeted not only by his teammates, but by an eager media contingent. There will be no shortage of questions, difficult questions, about the latest round of allegations concerning the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The return of A-Rod makes the Yankees better, but it will not make their existence any less complex. In that context, while A-Rod rides to the rescue in New York, he can also rescue himself. He is one of the few players who could even hope to outlast a controversy by playing at an extraordinary level over a long period of time.
The one thing that his career as a supremely talented player has lacked is the ultimate team success. If he can help move the Yankees from this difficult spot all the way back to where they believe they belong -- at the top of the baseball world -- he'll be helping himself while he helps this team.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.