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The Strike Zone

Even Alex Rodriguez's sideshow can't steal the spotlight from Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera shook off knee pain to crush a game-tying home run off of Mariano Rivera. Miguel Cabrera shook off knee pain to crush a game-tying home run off of Mariano Rivera. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

NEW YORK -- Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez returned to the Bronx on Friday night, his first home game since undergoing hip surgery this offseason and since receiving the 211-game suspension that he’s appealing. His first at bat began with a mixture of boos and cheers but that reaction grew progressively more negative after a brutal night at the plate: 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.

We don’t know what Rodriguez thought of his performance or of the crowd reaction, because after the game he left the stadium without speaking to reporters. Perhaps his silent exit was actually an example of sincerity, not flakiness.

After all, in his press conference back on Monday in Chicago, Rodriguez himself went on a soliloquy seeking to glorify what’s good about baseball.

“I hope that for one moment during this appeal process that we have the opportunity to talk about the greatest game in the world, to take a little bit of a timeout from this and give the fans of baseball an opportunity to focus on all the great stories that are happening in baseball right now," Rodriguez said. "Above all, I’m a huge baseball fan, and I hope that we can put some light on a lot of this. I hope for today we can take a timeout, take a deep breath and focus on these great baseball stories.”

His wish is my command, and there was a great baseball story on this very diamond this very night involving a player at Rodriguez’s very position.

So dramatic was the climactic moment that Tigers rightfielder Torii Hunter is already talking Hollywood movie scripts, and his postgame comments served as a de facto director’s commentary of the drama that unfolded in the top of the ninth inning. That was when Yankees closer Mariano Rivera faced Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera with two outs, a man on and a 3-1 Yankees lead. “Greatness Greatness,” by the way, is Hunter’s working title for the project.

“You’ve got the best closer to ever play the game and probably the best hitter of our time at the plate,” Hunter said.

We have our scene-stealing cast. We have a grand setting and a situation with inherent drama. Now all we need is character development, for one of our protagonists to overcome adversity. Cue the two foul balls that Cabrera smacked off his left knee.

After the first one, Cabrera grimaced in obvious pain and reached down to his left leg. He hobbled around home plate. The trainer came for a visit. That ailing knee, a fulcrum of power and torque for a righthanded hitter, would have been a concern for any batter, much less one facing the closing position’s G.O.A.T.

Asked later if he was in pain, Cabrera said, “I was playing. I wasn’t worried about that.”

Said Hunter added, “He won’t leave the plate. He’s a hitter. He wants to hit no matter what.”

Indeed, rather than exit the game, Cabrera did the seemingly unthinkable under the circumstances: he turned on a 93-mile-per-hour cutter over the inside corner -- pivoting on that bad knee -- and crushed a home run of at least 420 feet to dead-centerfield to tie the game and preserve, for one more inning, Detroit’s 12-game winning streak.

“Foul balls off his leg, it looked like he was defeated,” Hunter said. “And then next thing you know, homer. Perfect script. They should make a movie of that at bat.”

Cabrera appeared to be in enough pain that he didn’t step forward with his front leg like normal but stepped back away from the plate a little, perhaps to minimize the twisting on the sore knee -- not that Cabrera himself would admit to such a thing, insisting later, “It didn’t hurt to swing.”

And the home run wasn’t merely a wall scraper to a shallow corner-field porch, but a shot into the netting over Monument Park beyond the deep centerfield wall. Even Rivera mouthed the word “wow” on the mound, telling Newsday after the game he did so “because [Cabrera] was limping. That was amazing.”

The movie’s denouement, however, took an unexpected turn, as the Yankees still won in the 10th inning for a 4-3 victory.

But no matter the final score or the amount of booing or any other extraneous storyline, there was a great baseball story in the ninth inning. And with two games left in the series, we can only hope there’s a sequel.

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