Wednesday, May 18, 2011, 11:56 AM
The detailed conversations took place a few times every day. The words were exchanged in the batting cage, in the dugout, in the clubhouse and in front of a computer. Again and again, the two men discussed how to eradicate a problem that has been bothering both of them.
Alex Rodriguez and Kevin Long were the two Yankees who have had these talks and who have shared concern for Rodriguez’s vanishing act as a hitter. After Rodriguez dominated pitchers during the first three weeks of the season, he plummeted into a deep drought. How, Long wondered, could he help get Rodriguez back to being a prolific hitter?
Long determined the cause of Rodriguez’s struggles, detecting that the third baseman hadn’t been using the lower half of his body to ignite his swing. Rodriguez called it a “disconnect” between his lower and upper body. But what has been especially vexing for Rodriguez, who normally makes rapid adjustments, is that he has labored to make these changes. He knew what to do, but he didn’t do it.
“We’ve diagnosed the problem,” Long said. “It’s vivid. We know what it is. But Alex said there’s been some hesitation. He knows he has to use his legs and he’s telling himself to use his legs. But when it comes time to do it, he hesitates. It’s all about fixing mechanics.”
Several hours after Long spoke to me about Rodriguez’s missing swing on Tuesday, Rodriguez corrected his mechanics and found that smooth swing again. Rodriguez blasted two homers off James Shields to help guide the Yankees to a much-needed 6-2 win over the Rays. The Yankees exhaled after ending their six-game losing streak and, for at least for one day, shifted the focus back to the field.
Across a few days, the storylines around the Yankees were about Jorge Posada refusing to play and then apologizing for it, about Derek Jeter defending his best friend and the Yankees speaking with Jeter about their version of the messy situation and about how the team was aging and fraying. With a win over the Rays, the Yankees had some relief. Rodriguez, the missing man, helped provided it.
For the Yankees to be a successful offensive team, they need Rodriguez to be great, not just good. Rodriguez knows it. Long knows it. Manager Joe Girardi knows it. As the Yankees faltered with runners in scoring position and labored to score runs, Rodriguez’s wasn’t even a good hitter. He was a lost hitter, a hitter who couldn’t get his legs effectively driving as part of his swing. Rodriguez also needs to be aware of how his surgically-repaired right hip is impacting his swing, especially since he has had issues with his lower body. Without Rodriguez’s typical output, the Yankees can sometimes look more feeble than feared.
“He’s the most important piece of our offense,” Long said. “When he’s right, our other guys just need to be average. He can carry us.”
With the Yankees trailing 1-0 in the fourth, Shields uncorked four fastballs and a cut fastball to Rodriguez to advance the count to 2-2. Kelly Shoppach, the catcher, wanted Shields to continue with the hard stuff and throw another fastball. Shields shook off that signal. He wanted to throw his changeup, a changeup that Long said “is the best in the league.” When the changeup hung just enough, Rodriguez drilled it into the left field seats. It was Rodriguez’s second homer in 30 at-bats off Shields.
In Rodriguez’s next at bat, he did it again. This time, Shields threw a fastball on the outside part of the plate and Rodriguez and drove it over the center field fence to put the Yankees ahead, 2-1. There was no disconnect in Rodriguez’s swing as his legs and upper body looked in sync. Rodriguez’s leg kick, which triggers his swing, was compact and didn’t cause him to move toward the pitcher. After managing two homers in his previous 100 at-bats, Rodriguez had two homers in two at-bats.
Has Rodriguez finally solved the problem with his legs and his swing? Obviously, against Shields, Rodriguez solved it for one important game. Now Rodriguez must keep using his legs, which he called “the most important part of my swing.” According to Long, Rodriguez “doesn’t have a swing when his lower half isn’t firing.”
Rodriguez needs to use his legs properly to make sure he has his smoothest swing. The Yankees need Rodriguez to produce to make sure they have their best lineup. Those are simple statements, but powerful statements. That’s because Rodriguez is the most important element in the lineup, a talented player who, when he is hitting, can allow the rest of the Yankees to be average.
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES