He knew it was gone the moment he hit it.
It was one more in a long series of moments that have Yankee fans everywhere believing that this is one of those special teams that will go down in history. One more long shot paying off for a team that, for all its talent and gaudy statistics, for all the money it cost to put together, is building its legacy as a team that refused to lie down.
And it was a sign that the floodgates are open - a sign that the man who became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the Yankees of 2004-08 is finally ready to translate his talent onto baseball's grandest stage.
Even before Mark Teixeira hit his first ever pinstriped pie-shot in the bottom of the eleventh inning, Game Two of the 2009 ALDS had already been christened the Alex Rodriguez Game.
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Through recent Yankee history, it has been the moments of high drama that the fans never forget.
The Torre Dynasty kicked off with a controversial home run off the bat of a skinny 21-year-old shortstop, and a career backup catcher getting the best of a fire-balling closer's mediocre off-speed pitch. Two years later, an umpire gave Tino Martinez a fourth strike, and Martinez turned it into a grand slam. And in 2001, playing for the life of the Dynasty and the heart and soul of a broken city, Martinez, Jeter and Brosius extended a great World Series into the stuff of November legend in a losing effort.
2004 saw Dave Roberts, and David Ortiz, and Johnny Damon, and the beginning of Alex Rodriguez' October struggles. 2005 saw him play "like a dog." 2006 and 2007 saw the once mighty Yankees descend into the realm of playoff afterthoughts, beset by sub-par pitching staffs and stubborn home run swings, with Rodriguez in the middle of it, looking tight.
* * *
He did not look lost in Game One.
Not after a flyout to end the first inning with Jeter on second. Not even after an ugly-looking strikeout to end the third after Jeter's home run had tied the score at 2-2.
And in his third at-bat, he struck.
It began innocuously enough, with a short, compact swing to drive an inside fastball over shortstop, to drive in New York's fourth run and end Brian Duensing's night. There were two outs when he came up.
Now up 6-2 in the bottom of the seventh, again with two outs, he hit a long RBI single off the wall against Jon Rausch. He sat back on a curveball and hit it the opposite way.
* * *
A.J. Burnett's glove flew against the dugout wall. He had only thrown one truly bad pitch all night, and the Twins had taken advantage.
Burnett had battled. He'd walked five Twins. He'd hit two more in the fifth inning. But he'd given up only three base hits - and his defense at saved him a run when Swisher alertly threw to Jeter at second to tag Carlos Gomez as he stumbled, instead of hopelessly trying to nail Delmon Young going home. Jeter's tag of Gomez beat Young to the plate.
The only pitch he wanted back was that last 3-1 fastball, aimed at the outside corner, that tailed just right...right down the middle. And there it was: Brendan Harris' two-out RBI triple had broken a scoreless tie and likely ended the big right-hander's first postseason start in disappointment.
Nick Blackburn, for his part, was completely stifling the Yankees' big bats with a frustrating combination of two-seam fastballs at 90-92 miles per hour and cut fastballs at 86-87 miles per hour. The Yankees' left-handed hitters were seeing the fastball out of his hand, but were never sure which fastball was coming til it broke in or away from them.
It looked like it would take a right-handed bat to get things working. Jeter drove a ground-rule double over Gomez' head in right-center field with one out. Blackburn, a little nervous now, walked Damon before getting Teixeira to pop up for the second out. (Teixeira - 6-6 lifetime against Blackburn in the regular season, looked for most of the night like he was trying to do too much against a pitcher he owned, and carried a hitless game into the ninth inning. But we'll get to him later.)
Up comes Rodriguez with two outs and a runner in scoring position. Blackburn throws a 1-0 two-seam fastball towards the outside corner and misses his spot just enough. The ball tails over the middle and Rodriguez drives it through the hole at shortstop into left field.
Rodriguez pumps his fist in an almost Jeterian way when he reaches first base.
* * *
The first time we saw him in a do-or-die situation, with the Yankees trailing in a must-win game, he dribbled a weak ground ball up the first base line and swatted at Bronson Arroyo's tag, knocking the ball loose, giving the Bronx faithful one last moment of hope that the Curse would save the Yankees from their impending doom, from Game Seven and Kevin Brown and every other skeleton in Torre's bullpen closet.
The umpires convened and called him out. Obstruction. Jeter went back to first. The rally ended before it began.
* * *
Top of the eighth, two outs. Chamberlain and Coke pitched a scoreless seventh, and Phil Hughes has retired his first two batters. He just shook off a curveball called by Posada on 1-2, chose to throw his cutter, and struck out Delmon Young.
He's 1-2 to Gomez, but his elbow is starting to fall down when he releases the ball - a sign of overthrowing - and he's missing his spots, even on strikes.
He throws three straight balls to Gomez, trying to be perfect and strike him out. All the Twins have going for them, here at the bottom of their order, is speed and heart. Brendan Harris executes a perfect hit-and-run on 0-1.
Up comes Punto. Hughes throws four straight fastballs to the outside corner. The count goes to 2-2. He throws a fifth fastball. Punto fouls it off.
Posada flashes the sign for a curve.
(Thirteen years ago later this month...Mark Wohlers throws a 2-2 slider, and Jim Leyritz hits it into the left-field bleachers for a three-run home run. We are tied!)
(Somewhere, in a bar on 39th Street, Yours Truly is dead sober and having an ulcer, screaming at the television, begging them to throw a cutter. Having a Bad Feeling about this...)
Hughes throws the curveball, aiming for the outside corner and low. It catches too much of the plate, and Punto puts an emergency hack on it and bloops it into center field.
(Joe Girardi and Jim Leyritz learned an important lesson that day: Don't get beat with your second-best pitch with the game on the line. John Wetteland didn't throw another off-speed pitch for the rest of the World Series.)
Rivera comes in and gives up another hit to Denard Span. 3-1 Twins with six outs to go.
Let the Minnesota Twins believe for one minute that they can beat the Yankees...
Joe Nathan gave up 42 regular season hits in 68.2 innings pitched in 2009. He did not give up one home run with a runner on base all season long. His fastball tops out at about 94 miles per hour, and he couples it with a devastating splitter at 86 miles per hour, reminiscent of 2001-Era Curt Schilling, and a slider that dives down and away from right-handers at about 83 miles per hour.
He saved 47 games in 52 chances. The Yankees got to him on May 15, overcoming a two-run deficit for the first of three consecutive walk-off victories that set the tone for the rest of the season.
Nathan has a two-run lead now. The first two hitters, Teixeira and Rodriguez are a combined 10-19 against him lifetime.
Nathan leaves a 1-1 fastball a little too far out over the plate, and Teixeira rips it down the right field line for a single.
* * *
It's the ninth inning of Game Five of the 2005 ALDS. The Yankees are down 5-3, with nobody out and Jeter on first base, and Alex Rodriguez is at bat. He's 2-14 with five strikeouts to this point, and the Yankees badly need a hit.
Francisco Rodriguez isn't scared of Alex Rodriguez. He throws a fastball, and Alex pounds it into the dirt, right at the third baseman Figgins, for a 5-4-3 double play.
* * *
Nathan has been here before. He blew a save in Game Two of the 2004 ALDS, across the street. Being a closer is as much about mind-set and adrenaline as it is about stuff. And Nathan is nervous. He absolutely does not want to throw Rodriguez a fastball. Rodriguez knows it, and waits as Nathan throws three sliders off the plate for a 3-0 count.
A hint of a smile seems to be playing across Rodriguez' face. His lips look less...well, less purple, somehow, than they have in times gone by. He looks like he's ready.
Nathan's 3-0 offering is perfect, a knee-high fastball on the inside corner for a strike. Rodriguez lets it go past, unconcerned. Another one is coming.
("Don't swing harder, swing quicker." -Joe Morgan, ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, August 10, 2009.)
Rodriguez sees his pitch, a 94 mile per hour fastball on the outside third of the plate, thigh-high. His swing is short and compact.
The ball flies off into the night, over the home bullpen into the fourth row of the bleachers about 430 feet from home plate.
Tie game. And suddenly, even two innings and countless close calls before it happens, the Yankees' victory seems inevitable.
* * *
Mickey Mantle heard boos for his first five years in pinstripes, even playing for a championship team, because he struck out a lot - a product of swinging too hard - and was trying to replace the great DiMaggio in center field.
Roger Maris heard boos in 1961 (even after winning the 1960 MVP) on a team running away with the American League pennant, as he chased Babe Ruth's home run record running neck and neck with fan favorite...Mickey Mantle.
Tino Martinez was booed in 1996 when he first took over for Don Mattingly at first base.
In the eighth and ninth games of the one protracted slump of his career, Derek Jeter himself heard boos as he moved towards making a personal record thirty-two outs in a row in 2004.
The moral: Yankee fans have pretty selective memories, once they decide someone's worthy of their undying love. And if this is the year that Rodriguez finally wins a championship in pinstripes, October 9, 2009 will go down as the night he became one of our heroes.