NEW YORK -- Alex Rodriguez was batting with the bases loaded in the seventh inning Thursday, the type of situation he has come to relish. Rodriguez would pay to bat with the bases loaded in a playoff game, he said several times afterward. No one doubted the premise.
Known for his biting split-fingered fastball, Tigers reliever Joaquin Benoit attacked Rodriguez with one ball and one strike. Then came the pitch that the Yankees third baseman could not erase from his memory -- a fastball on the inner half of the plate.
Some two hours later, after Rodriguez fouled off the fastball, ultimately striking out and contributing to his team's season-ending loss in Game 5 of the American League Division Series, someone suggested that Benoit had given Rodriguez a prime pitch to hit.
"Oh," Rodriguez said, raising his eyes to the ceiling. "Did he ever."
It was the only shred of regret that Rodriguez would utter in the wake of the game, a dispiriting defeat that saw the Yankees leave 11 men on base.
"I was waiting for that at-bat all series," Rodriguez said. "I felt like I never had a chance to make a really big difference. That was the one and I came up short."
He was hardly the only culprit. Rodriguez's strikeout in the seventh did not even end the inning; Mark Teixeira walked to force in a run against Benoit, before Nick Swisher whiffed to end the inning. Russell Martin and Brett Gardner both popped out with the bases loaded in the fourth inning, and both Swisher and Jorge Posada made outs with a man in scoring position in the second.
Even Derek Jeter finished 1-for-5 to cap a 6-for-24 postseason in which he left a team-high 18 runners on base, prompting his lamentation that "pitching is what gets teams here and what moves teams along." Good Tigers pitching, in other words, prevented the Yankees from achieving timely hitting. As Yankees manager Joe Girardi added, "they made some huge pitches when they had to."
But because of who he is, because of his name, because of his well-documented struggles and unparalleled successes, Rodriguez became a representative figure of the Yankees' ALDS defeat. He hit just .111 in the series without an extra-base hit, knocking in three runs, walking four times and playing strong defense -- but doing little of significance to aid his team's chances.
In years past following disappointing series such as that, Rodriguez often offered clipped responses to questions and brushed aside criticisms. Not so Thursday. In accepting more than his share of the blame, Rodriguez used expletives to describe his play, offering insight into why he may have struggled.
For so much of the latter part of this season, Rodriguez played through injuries -- a right knee operation, a left thumb injury and nagging soreness in his knee as recently as last week. Though he was quick to dismiss his health as the reason for his struggles, Rodriguez did admit that he played out October at something less than 100 percent.
"Whatever happened this postseason is on me," Rodriguez said. "Let's make that crystal clear. There are no excuses for what happened these five games. I was healthy enough to do whatever I had to do."
"Players aren't going to make excuses," Girardi said. "Neither am I. The bottom line is we lost some really close games to them. We lost two one-run games and a two-run game. A hit here and a hit there and it's a different series."
A hit from Rodriguez indeed might have played a central role in changing things. As it was, he approached home plate one final time in the ninth inning Thursday, facing Tigers closer Jose Valverde with two outs. This time, there were no runners on base -- the Yankees were done with that for the night -- but one polarizing man at the plate.
Another fastball. Another swing and a miss. Another slow walk back to the dugout.
"That's a situation that you dream of," Rodriguez said. "Sometimes you come through, and tonight I didn't."
If Rodriguez is to come through for the Yankees in the future, his overall health will be critical. To that end, he already has a self-improvement plan in place, beginning with a healing process that could take some time.
His blueprint ends with another opportunity and perhaps another fastball. Same time, same place.
"No question I have a lot to prove, and I'm looking forward to that challenge," Rodriguez said. "I'm going to come back with a vengeance, and this team will, too."