The best hitter in baseball will be at a corner infield position today when the Yankees celebrate a home opener in The Bronx.
How they do will depend heavily on how the man who used to wear that crown performs.
Usually, all it takes to get the tri-state area baseball fans stoked is the first game of the year at Yankee Stadium that often feels like a holiday.
Today, we get an extra shot with another olive when Albert Pujols pours his powerful body into an Angels road uniform to face the Yankees in the first of three games between teams expected to make it to the postseason.
As hard as it is to ignore a talent such as Pujols, all eyes in the Stadium will be on Alex Rodriguez, who used to be the most feared right-handed hitter in the game and once a lock to take Barry Bonds’ all-time home run record, if not slug 800 homers.
Of course, Pujols doesn’t pitch to Rodriguez and Rodriguez doesn’t pitch to Pujols. But it is hard to dismiss the presence of the sluggers in the same room. Pujols, 32, signed a 10-year, $240 million deal last December; Rodriguez is in the fifth year of the most expensive contract in baseball (10 years; $275 million) and makes $29 million plus a $1 million bonus this season.
Naturally, Yankees fans care far more about what Rodriguez does because the love-hate relationship they have with the third baseman and cleanup hitter never stops.
With Rodriguez off to a slow start in the first six games, self-loathing fans already are anxious the 36-year-old is well into the back nine of a brilliant and controversial career. In six games Rodriguez is batting .174 (4-for-23) and looking for his first homer and RBI.
While scouts are not ready to count Rodriguez out, they did see some eyebrow-raising traits in the Yankees’ three-game sweep of the Orioles in Baltimore, in which Rodriguez’s biggest contribution was moving Robinson Cano from second to third with no outs in the 12th inning Tuesday with a ground ball to the right side. Cano scored the eventual winning run on Raul Ibanez’s double.
That is a winning play by Rodriguez, but so much more is expected from somebody with 629 homers and the money the Yankees pay him.
“He was getting tied up inside a lot,’’ a scout said of Rodriguez, who went 1-for-13 and hitless in five at-bats with runners in scoring position against the O’s. “Hitting-wise it didn’t look like he was using his hips real well.’’
Another scout didn’t see the explosiveness in Rodriguez’s swing.
“His bat didn’t look all that quick by any means. I know the last two nights were brutal [cold] to play in but it looked like he was cheating a little bit,’’ the scout said. “There is no coverage away, and he used to drive the ball that way.’’
Rodriguez did hit a ball Tuesday night that a strong wind kept in the park and forced it to die on the warning track in right-center. But in the same game, Rodriguez had a 2-0 count with Derek Jeter on second with the score tied, 4-4, in the ninth and fouled out to first with an anemic swing.
It’s not like Pujols is killing it, either. In six games he is hitting .217 (5-for-23) without a homer and two RBIs. His .612 OPS was six points higher than Rodriguez’ (.606).
Rodriguez needs one homer to tie former Seattle teammate Ken Griffey, Jr. for fifth place on the all-time list with 630.
So among all the pageantry that a Yankees home opener delivers, the bonus is Pujols and Rodriguez in the same building.
Bet which one the house will be looking at closer?
Alex Rodriguez, Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, the Yankees, the Yankees