NEW YORK -- With every swing of his bat he takes another hack at his wretched postseason reputation. With every step around the bases, he gets one step closer to redemption.
Alex Rodriguez will not find that redemption, of course, until he is guzzling November champagne and confetti gathers in his hair as he rides through the Canyon of Heroes. Even then, there will be next year and the year after that and the year after that.
A-Rod knows this. Every Yankee does. The highest payroll, the biggest stage means the most unrelenting of expectations. But we are jumping ahead of ourselves with such sweeping talk, dumping the same two-ton weight A-Rod has dropped on his own shoulders in Octobers past. Octobers that have led to runners stranded, hopes drowned and criticism unsurpassed.
Maybe it is the humiliation that came with the steroid revelations, or the time he had to recover both physically and mentally after hip surgery. Maybe it is the premier bat slotted in front of him, one that would generate the dramatic walk-off home run on this night. Maybe it is the love affair with Goldie Hawn's daughter after a failed marriage and scandalous tabloid headlines. Or, geez, maybe the law of averages finally caught up with A-Rod's immense talent.
Whatever the reason, Rodriguez is a man living in the moment this October. He is a man at peace with himself. And so there A-Rod was Friday night, jumping up and down in the on-deck circle, throwing his bat in the air with glee after Mark Teixeira hit a bullet liner that barely cleared the left field fence in the 11th inning for a 4-3 Yankees victory that set up a chance to go for a sweep of the Twins on Sunday in the American League division series.
It would be Teixeira who would take A.J. Burnett's celebratory pie in the face. Yet it was Rodriguez who again did not slip on the banana peel.
After a half-decade of autumn frustration in the clutch, A-Rod can't seem to make an out with runners on base in this series. It climaxed in the bottom of the ninth inning after Teixeira led off with a single. A-Rod saw three sliders in a row from Joe Nathan, a fastball in, and on a 3-and-1 count he drove another fastball over the right-center field fence to tie the score at 3. Thrilled, A-Rod started up the line, pumped a fist at the dugout and then would answer the fans with a curtain call.
"There has been a lot of magic in the air," Rodriguez said. "For me, it was obviously a lot of fun."
This was a wild game, one Yankees manager Joe Girardi said sent emotions up, down and all around the Bronx.
Carlos Gomez cost the Twins a run in the fourth when he fell and was thrown out at second before Delmon Young could score. Umpire Phil Cuzzi, working left field, may have blown the game when he called Joe Mauer's liner -- a sure double -- foul in the 11th. It was fair, although Mauer did proceed to single and the Twins failed to score with the bases loaded and nobody out. For their part, the Yankees failed to close out the Twins in the 10th after Brett Gardner stole second, took third on Nathan's throwing error and Johnny Damon lined into a double play.
Teixeira made sure the Yankees won, but only after A-Rod had made sure they would not lose. From the point the Yankees began their collapse in the 2004 ALCS against the Red Sox, Rodriguez had gone to bat 35 times in the postseason with runners on base and had knocked in none. He had gone 0-for-19 with runners in scoring position and, in all, was 0-for-18 in his career in the postseason with runners in scoring position with two outs. In the fifth inning of Game 1, he snapped those horrible numbers with an RBI single, and for good measure he did it again in the seventh. On Friday, he knocked in the Yankees' first run with a single to left. He's already got five RBIs in two games.
"The first one (Wednesday) made me feel like I checked in and started contributing a little bit," A-Rod said. "I think the overall approach when I came back in May, I felt like I had a new start. I wanted to let my play do the talking. One of the contributing factors for me was having Mark, a familiar face and friend. The first week in Baltimore we went to lunch and talked about a lot of good things. I think we make a good combination."
Girardi said it is an unbelievable feeling putting those two names in the lineup every day. It also is an unbelievable feeling not making excuses for A-Rod in the postseason. It wasn't always A-Rod's fault every year. Randy Johnson stunk it up. So did Chien Ming-Wang. But it always seemed to be A-Rod's fault.
"He's in a great place this year," Girardi said. "I just felt when he had his hip surgery he had time to reflect, and I think reflection is always important for people. From the first time he stepped to the plate for us in May he has been getting big hit after big hit."
The regular season started with his first swing on May 8 for a home run in Baltimore, and it ended just as dramatically on Oct. 4 with a grand slam on the last pitch to complete yet another 30 homer, 100 RBI season.
"I saw Dr. (Marc) Philippon on the field today and it was special for me," Rodriguez said. "I love that man. A couple of hours after he operated on me, I said, 'Am I going to be able to play this year?' You think about hip surgery, you think about Bo Jackson and get scared to death. I had no expectations for the first time in my whole career. That made me feel more relaxed."
A relaxed A-Rod is clearly reason for opponents not to relax.