A-Rod's air ball lets Rays off hook

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For eight innings, Alex Rodriguez's chase to join the 600 Club was merely a sideshow to the main event, which was, for a change, just a good, solid, well-pitched and competitive baseball game, something the Yankees haven't been involved in all that often this year.

And then came the ninth, and suddenly, the A-Rod Show was back on the air in prime time, all eyes on Alex, all the Yankees' hopes and expectations for the night placed firmly and heavily upon the shoulders of the man with the No. 13 on his back.

At that moment, baseball as it ought to be became baseball as it too rarely is -- dramatic and riveting and impossible to take your eyes off.

Because here it was, the first-place Yankees, their lead in the American League East down to two games coming in, and the Tampa Bay Rays, No. 2 with a bullet, separated by a run with three outs to go and a batter with more home runs on his résumé than any other player still in the game, trying, perhaps desperately, to close that gap.

This pursuit of the elusive 600th home run, which began as a certainty, had developed into a full-fledged situation by the time Rodriguez came to the plate to face Rays closer Rafael Soriano, his homeless streak now at 33 at-bats and an inning shy of eight full games since he hit No. 599 on July 22 at Yankee Stadium.

And that rarest of rarities at Tropicana Field, the large, boisterous crowd, knew exactly what was going on and what was at stake. With one swing of the bat, Rodriguez could wipe out a lead and rid himself of a burden, and he could save his team the anxiety of waking up Saturday morning to see that its lead in the division had been cut to one slim game.

So now here he was, concentrating intensely, maybe too intensely, the hands gripping the bat tightly, perhaps too tightly, the eyes trying so hard to focus on the pitcher that it was possible they were actually losing focus. Soriano's first pitch, a fastball, buzzed in at 92 mph, a little high and a little wide, and Rodriguez let it go. Then came the second pitch, a cutter, clocked at 93, cutting across the inside of the plate. Plate umpire Tim Welke's right hand shot up, and A-Rod wasn't letting that go. Instead, he was letting Welke have it, in the manner of a player who knows that every strike is important and, in his current state of mind, even precious.

We can't know for sure what A-Rod was thinking, because along with his 0-for-4, he added a walk out of the clubhouse without speaking to reporters. Certainly, he has earned a night off from media scrutiny, because heaven knows there's no escape for him from any other kind.

Afterward, in his stead, Robinson Cano, among Rodriguez's closest friends on the team, would say A-Rod was not pressing, that the pitch was a bad one and he had every right, in fact every duty, to complain. "He's a guy that knows the strike zone really good,'' Cano said. "To see him complain, it's gotta be a ball.''

Nick Swisher, a batter known to work a count or two, concurred. "There's a world of difference between 0-1 and 1-0,'' he said. "It changes the whole character of the at-bat.''

Soriano's third pitch zoomed in, a fastball with some run on it, and after what he had just seen, Rodriguez was not about to let it go by. He hacked at it -- and stared in disgust as the baseball flew practically straight up in the air and then curled toward the seats alongside the home dugout, where first baseman Carlos Pena tucked it away for the first, and for all intents and purposes, last out of the inning.

Along with his homeless streak, now at 34 at-bats, A-Rod was starting a new streak, two consecutive foul outs to the first baseman. It capped probably his worst night at the plate since the last time he hit a home run, an 0-for-4 and not only nothing close to a home run but nothing even resembling a base hit.

"I thought his at-bats were fine tonight,'' manager Joe Girardi said. "Hey, none of us got a lot of hits tonight.''

That was true enough. The Yankees jumped on Rays starter Wade Davis early, two batters up, two runs in on a leadoff single by Derek Jeter and a long home run by Nick Swisher in the first inning. Cano followed Rodriguez's first at-bat, a swinging strikeout on a fastball, with a single. Then, Davis rediscovered his curveball and the Yankees didn't get another hit until the sixth inning, and that was it.

Meanwhile, Phil Hughes, who had been having almost as bad a July as A.J. Burnett had had a June, seemed to have rediscovered the kind of stuff he had in the first half of the year or practically any time he pitched away from Yankee Stadium. Through five innings, he held the Rays to two hits. Then came the sixth and a fastball that was supposed to bust Matt Joyce inside but instead tailed back over the plate. Joyce sent it soaring over the right-field fence, in one fell swoop turning a 2-0 Yankees lead into a 3-2 Yankees deficit.

"For us, that game was lost on one pitch,'' said Swisher, who climbed the wall in a futile attempt to pull the game back. "I don't know what I was thinking. Unless I was having a Coke and a popcorn out there, I wasn't gonna catch that.''

"I'll be thinking about that pitch for a long time,'' Hughes (12-4) said.

And the Yankees might be thinking about this game for a long time, or maybe just a few more hours, until they send Javier Vazquez out there Saturday night against Matt Garza, who pitched a no-hitter his last time out, in an attempt to get that one back.

But for the 36,973 people in the stands, one of the biggest crowds of the year at the Trop, the strongest memory will be of the one-on-one confrontation between a batter trying to end what is becoming an odyssey and a pitcher merely trying to protect a slim lead.

Even on a night when it's not all about A-Rod, it winds up being all about A-Rod.

For eight innings Friday night, he was just a sideshow. Then, for the ninth, once again he became the show itself.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

More from ESPNNewYork.com »