- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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BOSTON -- The latest news about Alex Rodriguez that floated back to Fenway Park Saturday afternoon from the Yankees' Triple A affiliate in Scranton was highly unwelcome and almost comically predictable. Which is another way of saying it was just more of the same for a Yankees team that long ago felt snakebitten.
Rodriguez, who is just two days away from rejoining the Yanks for his first big league game of 2013, now has a "tight" quadriceps muscle that forced him to scrap plans to play third in his next-to-last scheduled rehab start?
Of course he did.
The way the Yankees are going in this season of injuries and faded glory, pending retirements and freakishly bad luck, the best acquisition general manager Brian Cashman may make before the July 31 trade deadline is permission from Hal Steinbrenner to blaze right by that $189 million budget they keep swearing they will adhere to.
When you're a franchise with the sort of gold-plated standards as the Yankees, how can you risk tolerating another season like this?
Who would've dreamed that this deep into the schedule -- 97 games down, only 65 to go -- they'd be gun-shy about counting on anything? The Yanks are used to being the surest thing in baseball.
Saturday's 5-2 win over the Red Sox in the punishing humidity and 90-degree heat at Fenway Park helped their spirits some. The Yankees snapped a three-game losing streak thanks to a strong outing from starter Hiroki Kuroda and a terrific double play by catcher Chris Stewart in the bottom of the eighth after he fell into the stands behind home plate to catch a pop fly, then nailed Boston's Daniel Nava as he tried to tag and go from first to second.
"No, I've never seen that before," Stewart admitted. "Fortunately, the stars aligned. … Kind of an unconventional day. But we'll take it."
Rodriguez may yet join the Yankees as scheduled on Monday, when they open a four-game series against Texas. Or his entire leg may fall off by then. Anything's possible.
Either way, it didn't sound like a bugle charge Friday night when Cashman acknowledged he had no idea what to expect from A-Rod once he does finally make his 2013 big league debut.
"He's the best that we've got," is what Cashman said instead.
And it felt like one more example of how drastically things have changed.
Late July used to be a time when the Yankees were famous for fireworks.
The trade deadline is less than two weeks away. A trip into Boston for a big post-All Star Game series? In other years, a midsummer series like this would've been a chance for both rivals to measure themselves against each other and decide what needs tweaking or bolstering for the playoffs.
The first-place Sox look like they have a good chance to make the postseason. But the Yanks? Not so much. It's not just because they began play Saturday a season-high seven games down in the AL East standings. Or that they're struggling just to stay in contact with the three teams ahead of them. It's what else is going on simultaneously.
Phil Hughes has struggled. Andy Pettitte admitted Friday he's in a "serious mental battle" to stay positive during a career-worst streak in which he's allowed at least four runs in his past seven starts. CC Sabathia, Sunday's starter, is lugging a plus-4 ERA and struggling to adjust to a lack of velocity. He spent a long time before Saturday's game talking with Orel Hershsier, the former Los Angeles Dodgers star and Texas Rangers pitching coach turned ESPN analyst. Sabathia seemed to be commiserating.
The Yankees still struggle to score runs, and Cashman didn't create much hope for a splashy trade by the end of the month, either. On Friday, he said the market for offensive help has been bone dry so far.
So Yanks manager Joe Girardi continues to improvise. With the game still scoreless Saturday, he tried to play a little small ball in the fifth inning, only to see Boston pull the infield in and throw out Eduardo Nunez at home after Nunez had singled, stole second and gone to third on a sac bunt by Stewart.
Pitching, defense, small ball.
"That's what we have to do," Girardi nodded. "There's not too many nights we're going to slug."
No. These Yankees are stuck measuring success in small increments now, not scaring anyone or inspiring big dreams. The Yanks have had 16 players spend time on the DL. A New Englander who has attended both games of this Boston series said you know it's a really weird season for the Yankees when, "They take out one player you never heard of before, and they replace him with another player you've never heard of before."
Can A-Rod's return lift the Yanks above all that? It would be a surprise.
Rodriguez is better than the other five players the Yanks have cycled through third base. Kevin Youkilis, Jayson Nix, David Adams, Chris Nelson and Luis Cruz have combined to give New York next to nothing offensively.
Rodriguez at least hit two home runs in his first 18 rehab starts.
But scouts who have seen Rodriguez play say his movement and footspeed look slow. Rodriguez himself has warned his defense is "weeks behind" major-league ready. Nobody is lapsing back into the old cliché that just you wait, you'll see, both he and Jeter will wind up playing up to the numbers on the back of their baseball cards. For Rodriguez, that was two hip surgeries and two PED-related scandals ago. A quad problem just put Jeter back on the disabled list Friday. Suddenly, quads -- not broken bones -- are the Yankee infield's injury du jour.
Nor is anyone contending that getting one or both stars back is going to feel the same as swinging one of those big midsummer trades the Yankees have been known for. After the news from Scranton, the talk Saturday suddenly turned into whether A-Rod could merely survive the next 48 hours in one piece and rejoin the Yankees on Monday, period.
And to think, July used to be such an anything's possible month for the Yanks.
Snakebitten Bombers can't catch break as A-Rod's quad hovers over win.