Didi Gregorius looked at the fly ball he hit Sunday afternoon, a second-inning high pop to medium center field at Yankee Stadium. Then he thought about his teammate on third base, the day’s honoree, Alex Rodriguez. Could the lumbering A-Rod tag up and score?
“No,” Gregorius said afterward, sharing his sentiment from the moment. “He hustled!”
Indeed, A-Rod camped on the bag, watched Kevin Pillar come down with the ball and ran about as hard as he has all year. A head-first slide later, the 40-year-old had beaten Pillar’s throw home and raised his arms in elation as his club jumped to a two-run lead over the ultra-dangerous Blue Jays.
“That’s how the slowest man in baseball looks,” Rodriguez said.
It wound up 5-0 Yankees, with Masahiro Tanaka silencing the game’s best offense and the Yankees avoiding a four-game Toronto sweep to claw back within 3 ½ games of the AL East penthouse. Given that the usually reserved Joe Girardi described this as “an extremely important day” in his morning news conference, it felt like huge triumph as the Yankees departed The Bronx for a nine-game road swing.
And that made for a fitting end to an off-key beginning: A-Rod, recognized before the game for joining the 3,000-hit club (which he did on June 19), usually does his best work between the lines.
“It’s an amazing day,” said A-Rod, who singled and doubled off Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, adding an RBI to his run scored. “Middle of a pennant race. Every game’s important. We’re playing to win the division. That’s the truth.
“On a day like today, I’m incredibly grateful [to] the Steinbrenners, to the Yankees. First class all the way. And it’s rare for me that I get to celebrate a day with my mother, two daughters, manager, teammates and obviously the fans.”
While the Yankees lead the league in pomp and circumstance, let’s face it: This salute felt considerably different. Kudos to the Yankees for moving forward in their relationship with A-Rod, after legendary acrimony. Nevertheless, partly because of A-Rod’s tortured history — you might have heard he served a season-long suspension last year after getting nailed using illegal performance-enhancing drugs — and partly because the Yankees fans on site weren’t in a very celebratory mood, given the way their team got slapped around by the Blue Jays in the first three games of this weekend set, this one lacked pizzazz.
As the Blue Jays warmed up on the field, ignoring the ceremony, A-Rod received a 14-karat white gold ring from Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, who has led the peace accord on the team’s side, and a crystal vase from COO Lonn Trost. Rodriguez’s first big-league manager, Lou Piniella, taped a message from Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Those on site applauded politely for all of it.
Then the Yankees got to work, and the real fun begun. When Rodriguez ripped his RBI double to left field in the eighth inning, scoring rookie pinch-runner Rico Noel for the final, 5-0 edge, Joe Girardi lifted his veteran designated hitter for pinch-runner Jose Pirela. Then, A-Rod got a bona fide standing ovation from the appreciative fans.
A-Rod now has 10 RBIs and eight runs scored in 11 September games after registering 10 and seven, respectively, in 25 August games.
“He’s been a huge part of our lineup the whole year,” Girardi said. “We need to keep him going.”
Girardi enjoyed A-Rod’s mad second-inning dash as much as anyone.
“Maybe it was the video he saw of his first base hit [during the ceremony] and how fast he was that it kind of came back to him,” the manager said.
A-Rod, a good sport about his imperfections of all kinds, credited Girardi for frequently resting him and keeping him nimble in the stretch run.
“I’m in a position where I can have a final sprint,” Rodriguez said. Or at least a nice burst from the game’s slowest man.