Relaxed, happy New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez ending postseason struggles heading into AL Championship Series

NEW YORK

There are video highlights and statistical analyses that document how much different Alex Rodriguez has been thus far this postseason. Yankees manager Joe Girardi has his own scale. "How relaxed he is," Girardi said. "I think the importance about playing in October is being relaxed. Alex has had a lot of fun this year. You say, 'How do you know?' I hear him laughing every day. I mean, and it's laughing loud."

Rodriguez's performance in the three-game sweep of Minnesota — a .455 average, two homers, six RBIs — is a stunning departure from his past October struggles and a huge positive as he seeks his first career World Series appearance, and the Yankees their first championship since 2001.

What's amazing is that a season that started so horribly, with the awkward and uncomfortable news conference in Tampa to address questions about his use of performance-enhancing drugs, then the unexpected and somewhat risky hip surgery that sidelined him into May, may end up so well.

"I think it's fair to say that I hit rock bottom this spring, between the embarrassment of the press conference and my career being threatened with the hip injury," Rodriguez said.

"My career was at a crossroads, and I was either going to stay at the bottom or I was going to bounce back. I told you guys in spring training that I had to focus this year on playing baseball and cutting off all unnecessary distractions. I didn't expect any of you guys to take me at my word — and I don't blame you. But for me, I think I've done a good job of that this year. Hopefully I can do that for the rest of my career."

Girardi said the time away — remember, there was fallout from the news conference, the pending release of the book with the controversial allegations, the distraction of the World Baseball Classic — did his third baseman good, giving him time for reflection.

When Rodriguez rejoined the Yankees on May 8 in Baltimore, he did so with a different mind-set. "I had no expectations," he said. "That's the first time in my whole career. That obviously made me feel more relaxed."

He shoved aside his standard (though for mortals somewhat extraordinary) goals of 40 homers and 120 RBIs, convincing himself he'd be satisfied with 15 and 50. Naturally, he homered on his first swing of the season. And when he did so again in his final two at-bats — during the Oct. 4 finale at the Trop — he finished, despite missing 38 games, with 30 and 100.

"I'm playing with the house's money, basically," he said. "I feel like I have nothing to lose. I'm excited to be here like I have been all year. … When you miss five or six weeks, you actually focus on the game. You focus on putting the uniform on, on catching a ground ball. That's what I've been doing all year and that's what I'll do in October. I'm really happy to be here. From where I was 4-5 months ago, in a bed in Colorado, it's very easy to remember perspective and the big picture of where I was."

Rodriguez, 34, talks a lot now about simplifying things, on and off the field.

Certainly, he still brings some attention on himself, such as his very public relationship with movie star girlfriend Kate Hudson (including a getaway to Miami the last two days likely to become a big story if he struggles against the Angels), but after a divorce and rumored flings including Madonna, he appears to have found happiness.

He also has made a concerted effort to be more a part of the team, going seemingly out of his way in quotes to praise shortstop Derek Jeter ("He's our captain, he's our leader … "), and becoming an active participant, rather than an obligatory observer, in post-clinching champagne celebrations.

"I feel great, not only with the game but in my life," he said.

The Yankees are back in the AL Championship Series for the first time since 2004 — A-Rod's first season in New York — and they're talking about advancing because of him rather than in spite of him.

"I think he's in a great place this year; I really do," Girardi said. "Without Alex, we're not in this situation right now."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com

FAST FACTS

Changing stripes?

As a Yankee, A-Rod had been a bust in the postseason — until this October:

YearGAvg.HRRBI

200411.32038

20055.13300

20064.07100

20074.26711

20093.45526

Relaxed, happy New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez ending postseason struggles heading into AL Championship Series 10/13/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 7:20am]

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