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Could A-Rod’s 4-K night be his last as a Yankees starter?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Has Alex Rodriguez started his last game for the New York Yankees?

That question — which not long ago seemed too outlandish to bother asking — is now very much in play following A-Rod’s nightmare of a game Saturday against Drew Smyly and the Tampa Bay Rays, in which he was given a rare opportunity to start, and struck out, both literally and figuratively.

It will be difficult now for Rodriguez to present a logical argument to manager Joe Girardi and the Yankees front office that there is still life in his 41-year-old bat and that he should be given more, not fewer, chances to demonstrate it.

“I had a chance to make my case tonight, and I didn’t do a good job of that,” he said. “I didn’t do myself any favors tonight, that’s for sure.’’

Despite being given his first start since July 22, you could make the case that Rodriguez was being set up to fail. In the eight days between starts, he had gotten precisely one at-bat — in the ninth inning of Friday night’s 5-1 loss — and made as much of it as he could, bouncing a single into left field.

Alex Rodriguez flips his bat after his fourth strikeout, which opened Saturday's ninth inning of the Yankees' loss to the Rays. Brian Blanco/Getty Images

But he was now being asked to produce against Smyly, who despite his horrendous record this season — he came in 2-11 with a 5.42 ERA — has always been tough against the Yankees, against whom he earned one of those wins back in April, and against Rodriguez, whom he had struck out six times in eight career at-bats.

Smyly ran true to form, pitching six innings of two-run ball in the Rays' 6-3 victory at Tropicana Field. No one, except for Brett Gardner, who homered in the third inning, hit much. A-Rod did not hit at all.

On this night, Rodriguez would strike out four times, three of them against Smyly. And the third was the worst of all, when he stood frozen as a 2-2 fastball, which loitered in at a leisurely 91 mph, passed knee-high over the heart of the plate for strike three.

“Smyly has always been tough on me historically, and that did not change today,” Rodriguez said. “He had me off balance all night. I swung at balls and took strikes.’’

If this was an audition for the remainder of his Yankees career, A-Rod failed it. Miserably.

Even so staunch a defender of anything in Yankees pinstripes as Girardi could offer only token resistance when asked if it was becoming more difficult to justify Rodriguez’s presence in his lineup.

“You can’t always look at just one night,’’ Girardi said. “But that’s definitely something that you think about.’’

And earlier, he had come as close as he probably ever will to publicly raising the possibility that one of his players was at the end of the line.

“He hasn’t hit like he did last year,’’ Girardi said, referring to Rodriguez's surprising 2015 season, in which he hit 33 home runs and knocked in 86 runs. “I’m trying to get him going and we’ll just see what happens. The second half it’s been a struggle, and it was a struggle tonight for him. I don’t know if it’s rust, or what it is.’’

What it looks like is the end of the line for a once-great player whose legacy has already been permanently tainted and who now is on the verge of becoming an object of pity.

You can bet Rodriguez will not play in Sunday’s series finale, even though the Rays are starting a left-hander, Blake Snell. He will not play against the Mets on Monday or Tuesday at Citi Field, because without a designated hitter there is simply no place for him in the lineup, even one as feeble as the Yankees' lineup.

And if he is not in the lineup Wednesday, when the Yankees return home and the Mets are scheduled to start left-hander Steven Matz, well, the handwriting will be on the wall in bold, black spray paint.

“When I don’t play him, I’m questioned," a testy Girardi said before the game when asked about his sporadic use of a player with 696 career home runs. "When I play him, I’m questioned. Anyone who wants to do it can do it next time.”

But as was the case in the final seasons of Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter, it is obvious that the situation between Rodriguez and the Yankees is no longer working for anyone involved.

A-Rod’s presence on the bench is doing him no good — obviously, he will never rediscover his stroke swinging at the soft tosses of a batting-practice pitcher — and his presence on the roster is doing the Yankees no good. He is unsuitable for any duty other than hitting, and lately, he’s not even suitable for that. His presence on the payroll, however, no longer matters; the $21 million he is owed next season and the $7 million or so he is owed for the remainder of this one is money already spent, a cost already sunk.

Rodriguez might play again for the Yankees, and he might even produce a big hit or two. But his recent form, punctuated by his night of futility Saturday, argues strongly against it.

No one involved in this unhappy triangle — neither owner Hal Steinbrenner, nor Girardi nor Rodriguez — can be very happy with this arrangement.

And none of them, nor I, would be surprised to see it end, and soon.

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