In One Swing, Rodriguez Is an Instant Hit

Yankees 10, Orioles 7

In One Swing, Rodriguez Is an Instant Hit


Published : April 8, 2007 / The New York Times

Alex Rodriguez slapped his hands as he rounded first base yesterday afternoon and then nearly plowed into the third-base coach Larry Bowa as he rounded third. Before touching home plate, he heaved his batting helmet toward the sky, a smile on his face every step of the way.

Rodriguez has been playing in the major leagues for 13 seasons. But with one swing of the bat, he became a kid again.

“It felt awesome,” Rodriguez said of his trip around the bases, which he earned after belting a game-winning grand slam that capped an improbable 10-7 victory against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium. “I was so excited. I felt foolish running around the bases like it was Little League. I just remember I almost knocked Bowa over at third. I saw the fans kind of rocking behind him. It was kind of cool.”

It was rare, too. The Yankees have played 16,116 games in their 105-year history, but they have ended only eight games with a grand slam. Yesterday’s game-ending grand slam, the third of Rodriguez’s career, may have been the most dramatic. And it overshadowed a disappointing major league debut by Kei Igawa, the Japanese left-hander whom the Yankees signed in the off-season.

The Yankees (2-2) trailed by a run with two out and the bases empty in the ninth inning, a situation similar to the one described in the Ernest L. Thayer poem “Casey at the Bat.” Then Robinson Canó singled up the middle against Orioles closer Chris Ray, Derek Jeter walked and Bobby Abreu was hit by a pitch to bring up Rodriguez.

Like Casey in the poem, Rodriguez had two strikes against him. But that was where the comparison ended. Ray offered a 95-mile-an-hour fastball on a 1-2 count that Rodriguez sent over the wall in right-center.

“Somehow, I knew it was going to come down to me,” said Rodriguez, who had three hits and six runs batted in, including a two-run homer in the first inning. “Even with two outs and nobody on.”

The fans roared their approval. The Yankees piled out of the dugout and mobbed Rodriguez. Johnny Damon attempted to lift him in the air, but, maybe thinking about his strained right calf, did not. Jeter urged Rodriguez to make a curtain call, and he obliged.

Rodriguez has had a rocky relationship with the fans during his three-plus seasons in the Bronx. Just the other day, after he popped out with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of Thursday’s 7-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the fans let him have it.

“He probably puts more pressure on himself than he needs to,” Manager Joe Torre said. “Everybody’s sensitive to the fans.”

The fans reserved their ire yesterday for Igawa, who dug an early hole. He lasted five innings, more than any Yankees starter had pitched this season, but his pitching line was unsightly: seven earned runs on eight hits, three walks, two strikeouts and two pitches that bounced before reaching the plate.

The Yankees paid $26 million for the right to negotiate with Igawa, who played eight seasons for the Hanshin Tigers of Japan’s Central League. They signed him to a five-year, $20 million contract.

On Thursday, Igawa’s countryman, Daisuke Matsuzaka, made his debut for the Boston Red Sox with a fine outing. Unlike Matsuzaka, Igawa is not expected to spearhead the rotation, but the Yankees hope he proves to be a competent starter.

Igawa mainly threw fastballs, and his offspeed pitches were wayward. He made a fielding error in the second inning that allowed Nick Markakis to reach base.

“We expect better and I’m sure he does, too,” Torre said.

Igawa allowed a solo home run to Markakis in the first inning and a three-run double to Melvin Mora in the third. Mora then hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning.

Two outs after Mora’s homer, Igawa walked Aubrey Huff, and the fans began to jeer loudly.

“I’ve been booed in Japan, too, so I’m not worried,” Igawa said through an interpreter.

Igawa is the third Japanese player to play for the Yankees, following Hideki Irabu and Hideki Matsui, who both had memorable Yankee Stadium debuts. Irabu earned his first victory here in 1997, and Matsui hit a grand slam in a victory in 2003.

Matsui has been a success with the Yankees, but he left yesterday’s game in the fourth inning with a strained left hamstring sustained while running to first base in the second inning. Torre said Matsui might miss a few games, and he was not expected to play in today’s series finale.

But Irabu flamed out after three seasons. The Yankees are hoping that Igawa, who arrived with much less acclaim than Matsui or Irabu, ultimately follows Matsui’s career trajectory.

“I was disappointed, but this is a long season and there’s good days and there’s some bad days,” said Igawa, who watched Rodriguez’s homer from the dugout.

If he has not already, Igawa may want to drop by Rodriguez’s locker to say thank you for bailing him out. He may want thank Jason Giambi, too.

The Yankees trailed, 7-3, in the eighth inning when Giambi hit a three-run homer against the right-handed reliever Danys Báez to make it a one-run game. Orioles starter Steve Trachsel, a former Met, had mostly kept the Yankees in check until then.

The Yankees used four relievers, and none of them allowed a run. The victory went to Mariano Rivera, who pitched the ninth.

“Our bullpen came to the rescue,” Torre said.

And so did Rodriguez.

In Thayer’s poem, Casey strikes out to end the game, bringing “no joy in Mudville.” As Rodriguez rounded the bases yesterday, there was joy on his face and on thousands of others, too.