- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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BALTIMORE -- Alex Rodriguez cannot bat third for the New York Yankees anymore, not in this Division Series, not until his presence inspires fear in the opposing dugout rather than a sweeping sense of relief.
This demotion in the lineup doesn't have to be viewed as corporal punishment, or as a means of sating the torch-carrying, Twitter-raving mob of fans calling for it, or as a method of embarrassing a big star who has it coming to him. Joe Torre once batted Rodriguez eighth in a first-round series against Detroit, and that was personal.
That was Joe Torre delivering an either-him-or-me challenge to his bosses, scapegoating A-Rod and compelling a team official to seriously consider approaching the manager and asking, "Do you realize you've just decided to bat Babe Ruth eighth?"
The official decided against it -- he feared the wrath of the agitated manager -- and Rodriguez never forgave Torre for humiliating him in a way he'd never humiliate Derek Jeter or other chosen ones from the Yanks' dynastic past.
Joe Girardi doesn't have to worry about all that. He does have to worry about the Baltimore Orioles and a Division Series that is dead even heading back to the Bronx for a near-certain Game 5 finish between two teams that have split 20 meetings right down the middle.
Girardi has a better chance of winning this tense standoff, of finally putting Buck Showalter's remarkable piece of patchwork to rest, if he removes Rodriguez from the three-hole.
After he made the final out of Baltimore's 3-2 victory in Game 2, after he put another feeble swing and miss on a Jim Johnson pitch, A-Rod stopped outside his Camden Yards clubhouse to field these questions from ESPNNewYork.com:
Would a new home in the lineup, a less expensive and conspicuous home, give you a different look and benefit you? Not embarrass you, but help you?
"You know what?" A-Rod said. "I come to the park, I see the lineup, and I go play baseball."
It was Rodriguez's way of saying this was Girardi's decision to make, not his.
"I feel good," A-Rod continued. "Our objective is to win three games in a series, that's it. I've got to be productive, and at the end of the day we all have to produce."
But sometimes a change of scenery can benefit an athlete so clearly feeling the burdens of his responsibility, no?
"I'll be fine, I'll be fine," Rodriguez said. "I show up and play."
When A-Rod shows up at Yankee Stadium to play Game 3 on Wednesday night, he should find himself hitting sixth in the order, not eighth. Girardi should move up Robinson Cano, his best hitter by a country mile, and bat Rodriguez behind Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher and before Russell Martin and Curtis Granderson.
A-Rod has five strikeouts in two games and one hit in nine at-bats. Of course, he would have two hits in nine at-bats if Orioles second baseman Robert Andino didn't make that absurd catch of his with two on and nobody out in the first inning Monday night, diving to his backhand side and ultimately turning two.
"I can't believe he made that play," Rodriguez said at his locker. "It really was an incredible play. I thought that ball was by him. Saw it in center field. I thought it was first and third, 1-0, and here we go."
A-Rod did single off Wei-Yin Chen in the third, and those first two at-bats were presented as evidence by Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman that their man still represented a viable threat at No. 3.
"He hit two balls on the screws early," Cashman told ESPNNewYork.com. "I don't think there's any benefit to moving him down in the order. When he's healthy, he's still capable of a lot."
Cashman was asked if he believes his third baseman is healthy. "Yeah," he said. "He's still capable, but down here we just haven't seen that in the first two games."
As is turned out, Rodriguez's final three at-bats told the bigger-picture story of where he is -- an aging, declining hitter, a diminished figure at the plate. He lifted a harmless fly to shallow center in the fifth. In the seventh, after Eduardo Nunez doubled and Jeter singled him home and Ichiro Suzuki reached on a force, Rodriguez struck out on a full-count slider from Darren O'Day, who had accounted for one of A-Rod's three whiffs the night before.
By the ninth it was already a lousy night for a number of Yankees on the defensive side of the ball, with Jeter, Teixeira, Cano and Swisher among the perps. Andy Pettitte, 40, had already shown why he's the most prolific postseason winner of them all, and Suzuki, 38, had already shown why he still ranks among the game's most electric players, somehow evading a Matt Wieters tag by doing a little dance and a little lunging, reach-around dive borrowed from a game of Twister.
A lot of goats, a few heroes, and not a single doubt that the final out would involve unlucky No. 13. Rodriguez had made the heads-up play of the game, raising his glove and bare hand in the third to deke the incoming J.J. Hardy into believing the batted ball was in Jeter's glove (the ball was actually rolling into left field), and into ignoring the third-base coach waving him home.
Rodriguez did everything but shout, Haaaa!
"Sometimes you go out there and you get creative and hope for a miracle," A-Rod said, "and we got one there."
But a greater miracle would've been a Rodriguez hit against Johnson with two outs in the ninth or, God forbid, a game-tying home run. A-Rod again worked the count full with the hostile crowd standing and stomping and waving its towels, and everyone in the house knew how this movie was about to end.
"He was throwing a big-time cement ball up there that's moving all over the place," the third baseman said. "I was trying to get a ball up, and he made a good pitch and I swung over it."
Three flailing swings, three futile misses. Rodriguez banged the barrel of his bat against his spikes and disappeared down the dugout steps.
"Some of these at-bats, you've just got to finish them," he'd say. Rodriguez swore he felt fine at the plate.
"I'm going to keep attacking," he said.
Attacking? Too often Rodriguez looks like a guy praying for a walk, and too often, with men on base, it feels like his team would settle for a strikeout to avoid the double play.
Yes, he was a postseason juggernaut in 2009, when he earned his liberating World Series ring the hard way. But in his past three playoff series, A-Rod is 7-for-48 with 15 strikeouts. Even in the Yanks' five-run ninth inning in Game 1, A-Rod found a way to swing and miss among the fireworks.
His regular-season OPS of .783 was his worst since his teenage days in Seattle. It's time to let him hunt for walks in the back half of the order.
"Right now I don't plan on having any changes to our lineup," Girardi said after Game 2.
He's got time to change his mind, time to take some pressure off his most burdened player. Girardi shouldn't bat Alex Rodriguez sixth Wednesday night to punish him, but to help him.