A-Rod making it look easy
Recent power binge highlights how special slugger can be
OAKLAND -- Don Mattingly knows a thing or two about being locked in on an offensive tear.
It was 20 years ago that Mattingly's summer home run barrage thrilled Yankees fans, as the first baseman hit round-trippers in eight consecutive July games. The run remains a Major League record.
Now the Yankees bench coach, Mattingly watched this week as Alex Rodriguez went halfway to the big-league record, homering in four straight contests and doing so to all fields. Somewhere within that assault on American League pitching, Mattingly laughed and marveled at just how easy this all seems to come sometimes for A-Rod.
"For him, it takes a lot less than it took for me," Mattingly said. "When you're seeing the ball good, your confidence is just sky-high. You're not worried about getting behind in the count, you're laying off bad pitches, you're not swinging over strikes. When you're in that situation, everything seems like it slows down for you a little bit. Everything's going your way."
Rodriguez seems determined not to discuss his hot start in any terms of length, instead replying to inquiries with quotes that barely illuminate more than your average television highlight. Indeed, as he says, Rodriguez is seeing the ball well and hitting it where it is pitched.
But can it really be that simple?
"I think for him, it can be," said Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. "What he's saying is that there's not a whole lot of thinking going on right now. He's up there seeing and reacting to it. By the pitches he's hitting -- fastball, curveballs, sliders, changeups -- it looks that way."
Rodriguez set a new Yankees record with six home runs in the first seven games of the season. Just one player, Phillies Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, had hit more, slugging eight to open the 1976 campaign.
"When you're hot, there's really not a lot to think about," manager Joe Torre said. "You just react. A lot of times, when you're in a little bit of a slump, you over-try and start thinking about it. I think where he is now, he doesn't want to think about it, because it's working so well for him."
Rodriguez has credited his batting cage work with Long as a major reason for the historic start. Long said that Rodriguez has maintained much the same workout regimen from the first day of Spring Training, a seven-week period in Tampa, Fla., when those in uniform noted how much more comfortable and confident Rodriguez looked going into the season.
"I've been at peace for a while," Rodriguez said.
Long said that Rodriguez's daily routine has provided structure for Rodriguez, a player who thrives upon his preparation.
"He's diligent with his work," Long said. "He does it every day; it starts off with the tee, just working on staying square and staying short, and staying compact to the ball while using all fields."
Rodriguez's association with Long, the Yankees' first-year hitting coach, actually began during the winter months, when Long paid a visit to Rodriguez's Florida neighborhood. Catching up with the two-time MVP as he conducted some of his workouts at the University of Miami facilities, Long said the encounter was productive for both parties.
|"The scary thing is, I don't think he's locked in, full-tilt."|
|-- Doug Mientkiewicz on Alex Rodriguez|
Doug Mientkiewicz -- a teammate of Rodriguez's at Westminster Christian High School in Florida -- briefly stopped by the campus to work out with Rodriguez, or at least attempt to. What Mientkiewicz soon learned was that he could no longer keep up with the player who, in his youth, once served as a speedy, get-on-base leadoff man for Mientkiewicz to drive in.
"You can't really describe it," Mientkiewicz said. "The guy lived, ate and drank conditioning himself. He kills himself every winter, but I would say that the attention to detail this winter was insane. If I did that one day with him, I wouldn't have been able to walk for three weeks."
It's not just the frequency of Rodriguez's home runs that impresses observers. Perhaps even more importantly, Rodriguez has already shown the mind-set that he will hit the ball with authority to all fields, having already homered over every wall during his first eight games at Yankee Stadium and Minnesota's Metrodome.
"No question I'm a better hitter when I'm spraying the ball around," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez's most memorable home run may have been his game-winning grand slam to dead center field in the Bronx on Saturday, bailing out an ineffective Kei Igawa from suffering his first Major League loss, but the Yankees have found reason to celebrate each and every deep drive.
"He's having fun and he's not forcing it," Mattingly said. "You see it all over -- everything about his game. It's just obviously one of those grooves right now."
In a first-inning display on Tuesday, Rodriguez went down and banished a Boof Bonser changeup to more than a dozen rows deep in the Metrodome's left-field seats, a drive that the former Twin Mientkiewicz opined was one of the three hardest-hit balls he'd ever seen in Minnesota.
Of those three, Mientkiewicz said, Rodriguez owned two.
"You can't pitch him one way, because he doesn't hit to one field," Torre said. "I think that's a big advantage. As a former catcher myself, those guys who hit balls all over the place, they really didn't give you any part of the plate to pitch to.
"I'm not saying he's always going to be this way, but when he's hitting right, it's really tough to find a soft spot. He doesn't have to hit the ball on the screws to do damage."
Torre has said that even Rodriguez's outs are loud, prompting Yankees players to wonder if each and every fly ball to the outfield is destined to clear the wall. It doesn't exactly work that way, of course, but even when Rodriguez doesn't homer, he's been productive, driving an extra-base hit in each one of New York's eight games -- and 11 straight dating back to last season.
Rodriguez did not homer in Wednesday's 5-1 loss, but he drove in the Yankees' lone run with a sacrifice fly and ripped a ground-rule double to left-center off Joe Nathan in the ninth inning.
But as Mientkiewicz said this week, Rodriguez doesn't always need to bash balls up the gaps to be impressive.
Rodriguez's best at-bat during the Minnesota series, Mientkiewicz believes, came in the eighth inning of New York's 10-1 blowout victory on Tuesday. Instead of swinging for the fences and trying to pad his stats, Mientkiewicz said Rodriguez "spit on" some subpar offerings and wound up trotting to first base with a walk.
"To me, that stuck out more in my head than the homers," Mientkiewicz said. "He gets that he's feeling good and he gets that it can change that quick. I talked to him about it: I said that I was more proud he didn't give that at-bat away than the home run you hit."
It isn't as though Rodriguez has never experienced an offensive tear before; no player bearing his career credentials would consider such a hot streak foreign territory.
But it is coming at a time when many are paying attention to Rodriguez, unwrapping the bow on a fresh Major League season and doing so in the spotlight of New York which suddenly has taken to -- once more -- shining favorably upon A-Rod.
As catcher Jorge Posada said earlier in the week, nobody wants to look away when Rodriguez is batting, for fear of missing the next memorable highlight.
"The scary thing is, I don't think he's locked in, full-tilt," Mientkiewicz said. "I guess I have higher expectations of him, but he's getting one hit a night. It happens to be a 700-foot home run, but I've seen him also where he's hitting balls gap-to-gap at will. I just look at it like he's having good at-bats right now."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.