Friday, April 20, 2007

Bill Madden: Alex, Yanks Having Blast

Friday, April 20th 2007, 4:00 AM

Until "Alex The Great," "A-Rod the Magnificent," "Mr. April" - whatever you care to call him now - came to the plate in the ninth inning yesterday and produced yet another miracle finish in the Bronx, it hadn't been shaping up as the best of circumstances for the Yankees going into Beantown for their first showdown against the Red Sox.

We already knew because of the rash of injuries to befall the rotation that it was going to be two rookie starters, Jeff Karstens and Chase Wright, following Andy Pettitte, and then Joe Torre had to run through almost his entire bullpen in an effort to keep the Cleveland Indians in check.

Until Luis Vizcaino was tagged with a four-spot in the seventh inning, punctuated by Victor Martinez's three-run homer that seemingly put the game safely in hand at 5-2, the Yankee pen had not been scored on in 8-2/3 innings. All the while, however, the relievers have been asked to shoulder the bulk of the pitching work load.

So, things look a tad ominous with Fenway looming. But by now it should be clear that, from the Yankees' standpoint, winning the AL East this year was never going to be about starting pitching. For all of Brian Cashman's maneuvering last winter, the Yankee high command privately understood the most important change that needed to be made was Alex Rodriguez's mind-set - and that was out of their hands.

"We knew that if we were going to be successful, Alex was going to have to be the player he is," Torre said yesterday in the aftermath of Rodriguez's two-out, three-run homer that climaxed the improbable 8-6 Yankee win. "In spring training, though, I could see he was a different person."

A confident person. A free-and-easy person, unburdened from all the soap operas and criticism (justified and not) that have dogged him from the day he put on the Yankee pinstripes for the first time in 2004. A year ago, it was as if he faced these game-on-the-line situations with dread.

The bat was gripped tighter and all the while, the fear of failure was on his mind. Now it is as if he suddenly has a Reggie-like karma about him, welcoming the moment, relishing it. Maybe it all just happened for him with that game-winning grand slam against the Orioles at the Stadium on April 7, but Torre doesn't think so.

"I think," the manager said, "that he's in as good a place as he's ever been, but, like I said, I've seen that all spring. He's having fun and not feeling he has to make up for not doing it earlier. These last two games are the perfect example. He had a series of bad at-bats in both games leading up to his home runs.

"I just know I've never had a player with Alex's ability."

After Indians closer Joe Borowski retired the first two Yankees in the ninth, there was no reason to think that this game was somehow actually going to come down to A-Rod. But when Josh Phelps homered to cut it to 6-3 and Johnny Damon drew a walk, A-Rod began to get that feeling.

"I was sitting next to Andy Pettitte on the bench and not feeling very good about this game up to that point," Rodriguez recounted, "and he said to me after Phelps homered that I might get a chance to do something after all. I figured after Johnny walked that Jeet (Derek Jeter) would do something and the way Bobby (Abreu) is swinging the bat so well, I figured he'd keep it going too."

Which is precisely what happened. But it still fell into the realm of surreal. Once Abreu singled and a wild pitch by Borowski moved the runners up, there was some question as to whether Indians manager Eric Wedge would walk the torrid-hitting A-Rod and take his chances with Jason Giambi, even though it set up a righty-lefty matchup.

"By that point, it had become a case of 'pick your poison,'" Borowski said. "The fact is, it should have never come to that point. I get the first two batters out and all of a sudden it's 4 o'clock batting practice."

Said Rodriguez: "Last year in that spot, with the runners moved up, I probably would have out-thought myself. Now, I just try to keep it simple."

And so for the third straight game it was the same formula for victory - the relievers and A-Rod. Before the game, Torre had noted how this bullpen, six deep in operatives he trusts, has given him the most comfort of any he has had in his 11 years here. Just as A-Rod is having fun and savoring the opportunity to be "the man," Torre seems to be managing as if he can't wait to go to his bullpen.

But then, that's what Cashman, Torre and Co. all figured over the winter would be the keys to Yankee success: a deep bullpen and a different, confident A-Rod. With the emphasis, no doubt, on the latter.

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