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10/05/09 12:06 AM ET

A-Rod sees light at end of playoff tunnel

2009 might be year he emerges from postseason slumber

The best thing that happened to Alex Rodriguez may have taken place in a Vail, Colo., hospital bed. His right hip aching after a serious medical procedure in March, the Yankees third baseman realized he could not be counted on to produce superhuman offensive numbers.

That surgery cost Rodriguez the first five weeks of the season, but it also parted the thick clouds of expectations that come along with being baseball's best-paid performer. Given time to assess his priorities and refocus on the game, A-Rod wouldn't have his best all-around season, but it might just have been his most fulfilling.

"I'm playing with the house's money, basically," Rodriguez said. "I feel like I have nothing to lose. I'm excited to be here, like I have all year. When you take expectations away, you actually focus on the game, putting on the uniform and catching a ground ball. That's what I've been doing all year and that's what I want to keep doing in October."

Now comes the postseason, a black hole that demands Rodriguez find a way to fill it. Dissecting the Yankees' 162nd game in a crisp charcoal suit and a black tie, Rodriguez said that he might have found a springboard, inspiring confidence that this year could be different than the rest.

Yankees at a glance
2009 record: 103-59
2008 record: 89-73
AL champions
World Series matchup:
Phillies at Yankees
Postseason tix: Information

Girardi: Confident in moves
Vet quartet: On the verge
Damon: Got his groove back
Teixeira: D offsets slump
Rivera: Has no equal
Robertson: Invaluable
Jeter: Legend grows
Teixeira: Dependable
Girardi: Fresh cup o' Joe
Damon: What, me worry?
Rivera: Stoic and steady
Gardner: Finds his niche
Teixeira: Fully adjusted
Hughes: Difference-maker
Chamberlain: Happy in 'pen
Jeter: Ready to lead
Sabathia: Deserves Game 1
Swisher: A year wiser
A-Rod: Nothing to lose

The struggles of past seasons cannot be erased by any amount of regular-season success, frozen in time, challenging Rodriguez to step in and change the story. The numbers are the same as they were when Joe Torre managed his final game in pinstripes. The demons are still there to be conquered.

Since Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, Rodriguez has come to bat with 38 runners on base over the span of 59 postseason at-bats. He has left every single one on base, going 0-for-27 with runners on base through the Yankees' four-game Division Series loss to CC Sabathia's Indians in 2007. His only RBI in that series came on a solo Game 4 home run with the Yankees trailing, 6-2.

Maybe it can be as it is during the regular season, when players swear that one big hit is all they need to get off the skid and start a new streak in the right direction. Rodriguez said that he is hoping that the Yankees' deeper lineup might just offer him that opportunity.

"I hit cleanup for a reason, and my team expects a lot out of me," Rodriguez said. "We all understand there's 25 guys, and to win a championship, you need every guy. When you lose, people look around and numbers get dissected. That's the way it is, the way it should be."

If the ending to Rodriguez's regular season is any indication, the Yankees shouldn't have to wait long. Rodriguez set a new AL record on Sunday with seven RBIs in the sixth inning against the Rays at Tropicana Field, slugging a grand slam and a three-run homer in a 10-2 win.

The barrage improbably launched Rodriguez to his big league-record 13th season with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, and created a storybook finish to a season that came out of the dark depths of embarrassment and pain to see him -- finally -- blend in as just one of the guys.

"I think he reflected a lot when he went through his injury, and he came back to help us get to the playoffs," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I think he's had a great year. Physically, mentally, I think he's in a great place. Al doesn't really have any off years."

But professionally and personally, Rodriguez may have never been lower than in February, when he arrived at Spring Training and held an uncomfortable news conference in which he admitted what was reported in a Sports Illustrated article -- he had used performance-enhancing drugs from 2001-03.

Fidgeting in front of his teammates and a national television audience, Rodriguez's responses under that outdoor tent were sometimes vague and created more questions than answers, prompting general manager Brian Cashman to scowl and remark that Rodriguez simply does not communicate well.

The escape came two weeks later. Nagged by right hip tightness for the entire offseason, Rodriguez flew to Colorado expecting to have a cyst drained. Dr. Marc Philippon discovered a torn labrum that required surgery, putting Rodriguez completely out of commission until at least May.

"I think it's fair to say that I hit rock bottom this spring," Rodriguez said. "Between the embarrassment of the press conference and my career being threatened with my hip injury, and the unknown of not knowing when I was coming back, I think my life and my career was at a crossroads. I was either going to stay at the bottom or I was going to bounce back."

It was a blessing in disguise for Rodriguez, who reevaluated his life in the fast lane, staring at those skiers descending the snowy slopes. The noise level had grown deafeningly loud, even for New York.

In response, Rodriguez vowed to say as little as possible -- a tact he had taken in 2007. Shutting out a cavalcade of personal advisers and attempting to take his paparazzi-filled personal life down a notch, Rodriguez rarely granted interviews and instead allowing his play to do the talking.

Rodriguez's absence was felt as the Yankees floundered early, with journeyman Cody Ransom hardly filling the three-time MVP's shoes at third base. New addition Mark Teixeira seemed to struggled in particular without Rodriguez's threatening presence, hitting .198 in the A-Rod-free-lineup and being booed at Yankee Stadium.

And his return gave all of the Yankees reason to rejoice: his first swing of the year on May 8 produced a three-run homer that cleared the fences at Camden Yards, a fantastic beginning to a year that ended with a grand slam on his final cut.

They were meaningful hits, the type talk-radio jockeys have shouted for years A-Rod never gets -- half of Rodriguez's 30 homers in 2009 either tied the game or gave the Yankees the lead. Teixeira said that he still cannot be surprised by what Rodriguez can accomplish on a baseball field.

"Never, because I've seen him," Teixeira said. "My rookie year, 2003, he won the MVP. I've played against him and just been wowed a lot. You take him for granted, but at the same time, you enjoy it."

Saying that "somewhere after Baltimore, this season got a lot of fun for us," Rodriguez understated the case -- New York was a Major League-best 90-44 after his return. Rodriguez wanted to credit the pitching staff, throwing accolades at Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera.

"I think Alex has always played as a team player, I really do," Girardi said. "Alex will take a walk, he'll move a runner, he'll do a lot of things. I just think that with what has gone on with him, he's been through a lot this year. But he's in a great place now."

Yet there is no questioning that the Yankees have been a completely different team with A-Rod -- this quieter, improved version of the perennial All-Star -- back in the mix. Just how far he and the revamped Yankees can advance remains to be seen, but finally, Rodriguez seems to have found a formula that clicks.

"I'm really happy to be here, and it's not hard," Rodriguez said. "From where I was four or five months ago, in a bed in Colorado, it's very easy to remember the perspective and big picture of where I was. I'm in a place in my life -- professionally and personally -- that I want to hang on to."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.