Rodriguez seizes his awaited star status

Published September 16, 2005

ST. PETERSBURG - He is finally in a New York state of mind.

Last season, Alex Rodriguez came to the Yankees amid huge hype and expectations, yet it took a while for the superstar to settle into life in pinstripes and the boisterous Big Apple.

His .286 batting average and 36 home runs would have been terrific for most players. But they weren't the kind of numbers normally associated with the future Hall of Famer.

What a difference a year makes. New York's stellar third baseman is back in the swing of things in 2005 - and his swing in the sixth inning Thursday night at Tropicana Field left no doubt about that.

Rodriguez pounded a 1-and-2 pitch over the left-center wall for a two-run homer, launching the Yankees to a 7-5 lead en route to their 9-5 victory over the Rays. It was his 42nd blast of the season to go with a .320 average. And he added a triple in the ninth.

His pivotal homer, capping a six-run rally that wiped out a 5-1 deficit, came after he was hit by a Seth McClung pitch in the fifth. "There's no doubt in my mind that that was an accident," Rodriguez said. "But it did feel good to hit a home run in a big spot where we needed to win tonight."

So what's led to his return to old A-Rod form? "I just had an adequate chance to prepare for the season and really understand what playing in New York is all about," he said. "It takes a little time to adjust."

His performance has helped keep the Yankees on the heels of the Red Sox in the AL East and contending for a wild-card berth. Rodriguez was named AL Player of the Month in August, batting .324 with 12 home runs.

He has 108 runs scored, the 10th straight year Rodriguez has topped 100. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that is the longest such streak in the AL since Lou Gehrig achieved the feat in 13 straight seasons.

But don't ask him about personal glory: "You know, personal doesn't mean anything anymore. I came here to play baseball and help the team win."

Manager Joe Torre, on the other hand, has no trouble assessing the individual impact of No. 13.

"It's an Alex Rodriguez type of year - and that's quite a credit and tribute to him," Torre said. "He has to live up to himself every year. It was tough for him last year, the first year with the Yankees, but I think he's a lot more comfortable with it now."

It has been an up-and-down season for the Yankees, marked by an 11-19 start and costly lapses throughout. So staying hot - they've won four straight and eight of 11 - is critical.

"The team is playing with a lot of urgency right now," he said, "and we realize how important each game is and we're taking this as a playoff."

Rodriguez hit homer No. 400 in June, becoming the youngest player (29 years, 316 days) to do so. And he's only the second right-handed batter in team history to hit 40 or more homers in a season (Joe DiMaggio hit 46 in 1937). He entered '05 batting .305 lifetime with 1,096 RBIs.

"I don't look back, not yet," he said. But his ex-Mariners skipper, Lou Piniella, was asked to look back. Did he recognize he had a future superstar in Seattle?

"If you didn't see it then," said the Rays manager, "you had cataracts."