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Yankees need A-Rod to be A-Rod again

NEW YORK -- The man who batted Alex Rodriguez eighth against the Detroit Tigers, Joe Torre, was in the house on official league business Thursday, and yet Rodriguez refused to be spooked by any such division series ghost.

So much has happened between then and now. So many of the hobgoblins that accompanied the slugger to the plate in 2006, when Torre did everything but egg A-Rod's house, have been chased from the premises.

"I've got to be honest with you," Rodriguez said in a quiet moment outside his Yankee Stadium clubhouse. "If this was '05, '06 or '07, I would probably be feeling a lot more tense than I am right now, which is not a good thing when you play baseball."

In fact, it was a terrible thing when A-Rod played postseason baseball in his earlier pinstriped days. "I felt that I wanted to hit a three-run homer or a grand slam with nobody on base," he said on the eve of his first-round rematch with Detroit.

So Rodriguez became the face of the 2004 ALCS meltdown that exorcised Boston's own considerable demons -- until they returned with a vengeance Wednesday night. Rodriguez hit .133 against the Angels in the 2005 ALDS, reprimanded himself for playing "like a dog," and then finished with an .071 batting average against Detroit after Torre demoted him to eighth.

"That's a long time ago," Rodriguez said when asked in a group interview what he remembered about the '06 Detroit series. "I know they played very well against us, and we went home after four games."

A-Rod paused as if he was considering whether to address Torre's emasculating move. He wouldn't. "It's a long time ago," Rodriguez said again.

The breakout postseason and parade in 2009 make it seem like three lifetimes ago. Rodriguez tore it up two years back, won his long, lost championship, and liberated himself from the same questions that used to hound the likes of John Elway and Peyton Manning and now represent the burden of LeBron James.

So A-Rod doesn't have to hear it anymore about real or imagined postseason chokes. Nobody should ever again wonder if the third baseman has the requisite nerve to play big on the biggest stage.

But those doubts about A-Rod's heart and mind have been replaced by doubts about A-Rod's body. He's got the bad knee, the bad thumb and, of course, the bad hip. As injured body parts go, the bad shoulder doesn't make his top three.

Of greater consequence, the 36-year-old Rodriguez has the bad season, too -- a .276 batting average with 16 homers and 62 RBIs in 99 games. The last time A-Rod started a season in which he didn't play in at least 100 games, he was 19 years old.

Though Rodriguez was scratched from that final, fateful game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night because of his surgically repaired right knee, he maintained that his knee is fine, that everybody's banged up, anyway, and that nobody wants to hear about injuries this time of year.

"My feeling is he'll be healthy," Joe Girardi said. "But if he's not, that's a big player out of our lineup, or a big player that's not at the top of his game."

Not that the manager is counting on his third baseman missing any division series time. "I have no doubt that he's healthy enough to play every day, yes," Girardi said.

Only that doesn't mean Alex Rodriguez is healthy enough to be, you know, Alex Rodriguez. And given that A-Rod was A-Rod when the Yanks last won the World Series, would a physically diminished A-Rod cost them a shot to win it all this time around?

"I don't think that's fair to the rest of the roster," Brian Cashman said, "because we've played over a substantial period of time without him and were able to withstand it. But at this level, at this time, you really need everybody, and hopefully we'll have Alex, too."

Robinson Cano is the Yankees' most feared hitter, and Curtis Granderson might be the MVP of the American League. But the Yankees are facing Justin Verlander, the ace Rodriguez called "the head of the class." They need A-Rod to be a reasonable facsimile of the slugger he used to be.

As he spoke of Detroit's Miguel Cabrera, Rodriguez started likening him to Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez, "some of the real great hitters over the last century." A-Rod was conspicuously absent from his own short list.

If he'll never win any civic awards for his humility, Rodriguez can be cited for the more selfless approach he embraced in 2009, after he confessed to using performance-enhancing drugs and after he endured the hip surgery he thought might end his career.

Rodriguez tempered his diva act, spoke in clichés pulled straight from the Bull Durham handbook, rebuilt his relationship with an impressed captain, Derek Jeter, and stopped stressing out in October.

"In '09 some of my biggest at-bats weren't even home runs or RBIs," Rodriguez said. "It was drawing a walk and then having [Hideki] Matsui have a great at-bat. Nobody remembers that, but as a team we remember those things. I was just proud to be in the middle of it, and it was awesome when Matsui won [World Series] MVP."

In pursuit of a second ring two years later, Rodriguez needs his aging, fraying body to cooperate. He just put in some extra work with hitting coach Kevin Long, trying to shorten and tighten a swing that had been compromised by the injured thumb.

"It's a new season," Rodriguez said, "and that's one of the great things about playing in New York. It's all about what happens late, and especially in October."

Healthy or not, hot or cold, Rodriguez won't be batting eighth against the Tigers. This fall he's expected to hit cleanup against righties and fifth against lefties in a lineup that now caters to a different dynamic force, Cano.

A-Rod said he was excited about the chance to protect the second baseman, and to delete a regular season that felt a little like the beginning of his end.

"I see the postseason as an opportunity," Rodriguez said. "An opportunity to strike."

He struck in '09 and escaped from his ring-free purgatory for keeps. So if A-Rod swings and misses against Detroit, put the blame on a weakening body, and not on a fragile postseason mind.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter". Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.