We seem to have forgotten that the last time we saw Alex Rodriguez, if he was bad by his own standard, he wasn’t by that of most anyone else. In the 44 games he played in August and September of 2013, Rodriguez batted .244 with seven home runs, 19 RBIs and an OPS of .771, which was some 174 points below his career mark. Still, a .771 OPS would have ranked Rodriguez 31st in the AL in '13 had he played a full season and 25th last year, when he didn’t play at all. Rodriguez at his worst—at the age of 37, returning from a torn labrum in his hip and embroiled in an appeal of his lengthy Biogenesis-related suspension that he would ultimately lose—was still a borderline star, even if we were too distracted to realize it.
We’re realizing it now. Though he is 39, his year-long suspension is behind him and his hip is fully healed, and entering Friday he was batting .286 with two home runs, seven RBI and a .965 OPS. On Friday night, against the Rays, he seemed to make it official: A-Rod is back. In the second inning, he blasted an 0-1 pitch from Tampa Bay starter Nate Karns some 471 feet onto the Captain Morgan party deck in left center at Tropicana Field to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead. In the sixth, he hammered a 1-2 offering from reliever Ernesto Frieri down the leftfield line for another homer, this one a two-run shot to tie the game at 4-4. Then, in the eighth, he golfed a full-count curveball from Kevin Jepsen to center that just fell in for an RBI single, providing the Yankees with their winning margin of 5-4. By the evening’s end, Rodriguez was atop the club’s leaderboard in every major offensive category, including average (.344), homers (four), RBIs (11), OBP (.432) and hits (11). His OPS is now 1.214, baseball’s sixth best.
More remarkable than the results of his at-bats on Friday, and more concerning for opponents, was the way in which he produced them. The preseason consensus was that Rodriguez, nearing 40 and presumably (I guess) free of PEDs, would surely find himself overmatched by the blazing fastballs that more and more pitchers possess each year, even if he might still be able to catch up with junk. The Karns pitch he destroyed, though, was not only delivered at 92 miles an hour, but it was letter high. No problem. Frieri’s ill-fated offering came in at 94, and it was right on the hands. Rodriguez was on it. Jepsen can dial his heater up to 99 but, perhaps wary of the fates of his predecessors, just three of the seven pitches he threw Rodriguez were fastballs. It didn’t matter.
After the game, the YES Network’s Meredith Marakovits interviewed Rodriguez on the field. He was humble about his monster night—or, at least, he provided a performance of humility. “Tonight was a big team win for us,” he said.
“That was a great team offensive inning for us,” he said of the eighth.
“It’s been a long time,” he said about his mammoth shot against Karns. “It feels good.”
The Yankees don’t really want A-Rod around.They really don’t want to pay him the $21 million they owe him this season, nor $40 million more over the following two years, and they really, really don’t want to pay him the $6 million marketing bonus he is due for tying Willie Mays’s career total of 660 home runs, from which he is all of a sudden just two away. But he is there, and he will get paid (the salary, if not the bonus), and he is feeling good and reminding his club and everyone else that even an Alex Rodriguez who is a shell of his former self is still more talented and more productive than the vast majority of hitters, including those in his own generally feeble lineup. Yes, it has only been 10 games. But it is starting to seem as if Rodriguez has recently been the one thing he never was before, and that is underestimated.