- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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BALTIMORE -- Alex Rodriguez doubled in his final official at-bat of the 2012 season, which is a good thing.
If he hadn't, every line of questioning would have begun something like, "Alex, you haven't had an extra-base hit in ..."
Well, ages, basically. Before the final game of the season, in which A-Rod's double was just one of seven Yankees extra-base hits, including four home runs in a 14-2 drubbing of the Boston Red Sox, he had not had anything more than a single in 68 at-bats, a stretch of 16 games going back to Sept. 14, when his two-run homer pulled the Yankees to within one run of the Tampa Bay Rays in a game they would go on to lose 6-4.
Before that, he hit homers in back-to-back games on Sept. 7 and 8. But he's had just six extra-base hits since Sept. 1 -- from a player who was expected to erase Bonds, Aaron, Ruth and Mays from the record books.
And more importantly, from a player who all season long has hit third or fourth in the batting order.
True, Rodriguez was coming off an injury -- the broken left hand he suffered after being hit by Felix Hernandez on July 24 in Seattle -- but he insisted he was healthy and pain-free, as he had from the first day of spring training.
Yet it was a most un-A-Rod-like season even before the broken hand. At the time of his injury, while Rodriguez was hitting a respectable .276 with a .358 on-base percentage, he had just 17 home runs and 44 RBIs, numbers that were more suited to Russell Martin.
So Rodriguez, who refers to himself as Big Brother, began talking of his game in terms of "small bites," a euphemism for doing just about anything but what the Yankees were paying him $30 million a year for, which is hitting home runs. And doubles.
Late in the season, there were plenty of times when A-Rod, with more home runs (647) than anyone in baseball history other than Bonds, Aaron, Ruth or Mays, seemed more than content to draw a walk.
If there was any lingering doubt about where his stock is among baseball people these days, it was erased in the second-to-last game of the season, in the ninth inning of the final game when the Red Sox were really trying to win. Bobby Valentine chose to walk Nick Swisher and pitch to Rodriguez with the potential winning run at second base.
The fact that A-Rod walked -- quite unintentionally -- is beside the point. It used to be that other teams would do anything to insure that Rodriguez did not beat them. It was hardly a surprise and no insult when that mantle shifted to Robinson Cano.
But when other teams fear Swisher more than Rodriguez, that is a sea change in the way baseball's once most feared hitter is now perceived.
For the Yankees to advance far in October, A-Rod has to find a way to strike that kind of fear into the hearts and minds of opposing managers and pitchers over the next few days.
Not just for his sake, but for the sake of the entire lineup. An ineffective A-Rod in the heart of the order affects the way everyone else gets pitched to. If Buck Showalter senses he can safely pitch to Rodriguez, maybe he doesn't need to pitch to Cano, who is the hottest hitter in the history of the universe right now.
The same burden falls on Mark Teixeira, who will probably be hitting behind Cano on most nights, but with Tex coming off an injured calf that kept him out of 30 of the Yankees' final 34 games, it might be asking too much for his bat to come alive in the American League Division Series against a tough Baltimore pitching staff.
It may also be too much to ask of A-Rod, whose decline over the past three years has been steady and disturbing.
At least in 2010 and 2011 he had the built-in excuses of old injuries that had yet to fully heal and new injuries that came up over the course of the season.
In 2012, A-Rod and Joe Girardi insisted throughout spring training and up until King Felix's 89 mph changeup smashed into his fifth metacarpal that the Yankees' starting third baseman and erstwhile middle-of-the-order force was sound and healthy.
It was just a matter of time, we were told, until he was the A-Rod of old again.
"I'm ready to crush and do damage," Rodriguez said in May.
We are still waiting.
On Saturday, I asked Girardi if the Yankees could win if Big Brother continued to take small bites.
"Oh, I think so," Girardi said. "I think there's a number of capable players in that lineup to score a lot of runs, so I don't think it falls on any one guy's shoulders whether we win this series or not. It falls on all 25 guys in that room, the coaching staff and myself. That's who it falls on. I don't think you can say if one guy doesn't hit, are the Yankees going to win? It takes a lot of guys to win series like this."
Whether you buy into Girardi's reasoning or not, the manager's answer is revealing in that it acknowledges that he too has considered the possibility that the A-Rod we've seen is the A-Rod we're going to get.
I asked Rodriguez: To wit, do you need to hit better for this team to win?
"No, we need to do exactly what we've been doing," he said, shifting the focus from himself to the team. "We've been playing winning baseball. You get in trouble when you try to do too much. Get good pitches to hit, do some damage, and if they don't pitch, we talk about keep passing the baton. That's a philosophy that's worked for us here in September, and we're going to continue to do that."
When Rodriguez talks about passing the baton, it sounds an awful lot like passing the buck. Certainly it sounds nothing like the slugger who, in the midst of his 2007 MVP season, said, rather immodestly, "When I hit, the boys roll."
Arrogant, but true. But that swagger seems gone from A-Rod, replaced by an ersatz worldliness in which he attempts to display the air of a professor emeritus in the clubhouse.
Saturday night, he spoke about his mentoring friendship with Manny Machado, the Orioles' 20-year-old third baseman who knocked in a key run in the Orioles' 5-1 victory over the Texas Rangers in Friday night's wild-card game, the victory that brought these two fierce AL East rivals together in the ALDS.
"It changed the season," he said. "When I spoke to you guys about it a month ago, I was extremely optimistic. I felt like it was the best thing that happened to us in a long time. You guys looked at me like I had four heads, but I had a lot of conviction with what I was saying. We were forced to play a brand of baseball that we hadn't played in a long time."
There was a time not so long ago when Rodriguez would rather let his bat do his talking for him.
These days, he'd rather talk about anything but his hitting, because lately, there hasn't been much to talk about.
4hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com