The past three postseasons have been rough on Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees haven’t won a series and Alex, their best hitter, hasn’t contributed much. It’s a recipe for press disaster. Take a player who puts up gaudy numbers, combine it with a little postseason failure, and in just a few short seasons you have a half-baked “he can’t hit in the postseason” narrative. It’s one that will haunt Alex Rodriguez until he earns a ring.
The narrative is, in some ways, helpful. It’s helpful, for instance, to the enraged fan who needs a scapegoat. The Yankees fielded good teams from 2005 through 2007, enough to win the division twice and the Wild Card in the other (a season in which they had the best second-half record in baseball). But when the calendar flipped to October, the Yankees faltered, and A-Rod was at the center of it.
The 2005 season was a strange one. The Yankees had infamously started 11-19, but thanks to a Tino Martinez home run tear and some lucky pitching maneuvers, the Yankees rallied back to win the AL East on the season’s penultimate day. Their first round opponents that year were the Anaheim Angels, the team that knocked them out of the 2002 playoffs in just four games.
Alex strode to the plate 23 times, but collected only two hits, as many as Bubba Crosby. He did draw six walks, but after a first round exit that’s no consolation to the grieving, possibly perturbed, fan. The further we get from the series, the easier it is to reflect and say: You know what? Alex made as many outs that series as Derek Jeter (15). Yes, Jeter hit two homers and recorded seven hits to one walk — he clearly had the better series. The point is that it wasn’t all bad for Alex, though at the time all blame came back to him*.
* And Randy Johnson, and Gary Sheffield or Bubba Crosby…
It didn’t seem possible, but things were actually worse in 2006. The powerhouse Yankees offense, in which Robinson Cano batted ninth, annihilated the Detroit Tigers in Game 1, The slaughter came in the third inning, when the first six Yankees reached safely. Jason Giambi, the fifth, hit a two-run homer to make the score 5-0. Alex followed with a single. It would be his only hit of the series. The only other time he reached was when he was hit by a pitch. The saga ended when Joe Torre penciled him into the eight spot in the lineup, ahead of only Melky Cabrera.
It wasn’t always this way for A-Rod. He started off his postseason career well enough, going 9 for 29 in his first two series (1997 and 2000 ALDS). Then he broke out in the 2000 ALCS against the Yankees. he went 9 for 22 with two homers and two doubles, a standout, along with John Olerud, among a mostly stagnant Mariners offense. Even the great Edgar Martinez was held in check that series. Alex did all he could, but when guys like David Bell (4 for 18) and Mike Cameron (2 for 18) are getting plenty of at bats, it just isn’t enough.
A trip to Texas cost Alex three years of playoff time, but when he returned to October with the Yankees in 2004, it was like he’d been practicing for that moment since 2000. He led the team with eight hits and three doubles, and struck out only once. Through the first three games of the 2004 ALCS he was 6 for 14 with two doubles and a homer. In Game 4 he launched a two-run homer in the third to give the Yanks an early lead. To that point, life as a Yankee in the postseason was going great for Alex Rodriguez.
He wouldn’t hit another homer until Game 4 of the 2007 ALDS, in the bottom of the seventh, with the Yankees already down 6-2 and eight outs from elimination. He hadn’t hit well to that point in the series, picking up just two hits in the first three games. After such a magnificent season, A-Rod had again struggled in the playoffs. Not as badly as in 2006, and not even as badly as in 2005. But the Yankees had lost, and A-Rod was nowhere to be found.
My father thinks that A-Rod’s defining moment as a Yankee came in the eighth inning of Game 5. Two innings prior Derek Jeter had doubled home three runs, giving the Yanks a 4-2 lead. Miguel Cairo led off the top of the eighth with a double, and Derek Jeter bunted him to third. Of all the possible results in that situation, A-Rod got the second worst: he struck out (lining into a double play would obviously be the worst). He didn’t even put the ball in play to give Cairo a chance to score. While I disagree that it was his defining moment, there’s no denying that he’s been in a massive postseason slump ever since.
Will 2009 be the year of A-Rod? Or will he again slump when it counts the most? We won’t know until this thing gets underway. The good news: we know that the people who say “he can’t hit in the playoffs” are wrong. He can, and he has. Lately, he hasn’t. I guess “he hasn’t hit in the playoffs lately” doesn’t have quite the same ring as “he can’t hit in the playoffs.”