NEW YORK — As the ball left Alex Rodriguez's bat — a lazy fly to shallow right on an 0-2 fastball that moseyed along at 89 mph — it was tough to suppress the suspicion that one had just seen not only the last out of a game, but quite possibly the last at-bat of A-Rod's Yankees career.
After all, Rodriguez had delivered a remarkable valedictory-type address at his locker before the game, peppered with hedges and qualifiers and pseudo-farewells, at one point saying that if the Yankees no longer felt he could contribute, "then I have two beautiful daughters waiting for me in Miami."
Earlier in the day, owner Hal Steinbrenner had dodged a direct question about whether the Yankees were about to cut ties with Rodriguez, meaning he was about to eat approximately $27 million in guaranteed money, which is a lot of shredded cabbage for any owner to stomach.
"We have not discussed anything about what we're going to be doing in the hours and days to come," he had said, adding that he had no idea where a New York tabloid had gotten the idea that A-Rod might well be released before the end of this dreadfully disappointing season.
And when manager Joe Girardi was asked — after the Yankees had been trounced by the Mets, 7-1, at Citi Field to split the first two games of this home-and-home Subway Series — if that final at-bat might have been A-Rod's last as a Yankee, he did not exactly handle the question with aplomb.
In fact, here is a verbatim transcript of what he said in an answer that lasted all of nine seconds: "I don't necessarily think so, no. I mean, no, I mean, we have, I mean, like I said, I mean, my plans are for him to be there tomorrow with us, I mean, I haven't, there have been discussions of that."
But when asked in a follow-up whether he had decided whether to start Rodriguez at DH Wednesday night when the Mets start a lefty, Steven Matz, at Yankee Stadium, this manager who plans his lineups, schedules his off-days and maps out his pitching rotation days and sometimes weeks, in advance, said, "No, I have not decided that yet."
And oh yeah, the Yankees are calling up their prized catching prospect, Gary Sanchez, on Wednesday, which means someone will be clearing out to make room for him.
So a reading of the tea leaves, to use one of GM Brian Cashman's pet phrases, could lead one to wonder if this was, indeed, the end of A-Rod.
Well, depending upon your point of view, what I am about to tell you will either make or destroy your night. A source with knowledge of the Yankees' plans tells ESPN.com there is "no chance" A-Rod will be released Wednesday. The move could still come this week, next week, or the week after, but you have to assume that if Alex Rodriguez is still a Yankee come Sept. 1, when the rosters expand to 40, then he will remain a Yankee through the rest of this season.
Which also means this oh-so-long goodbye is likely to stretch on through the winter and perhaps into next spring training, which will be no fun for anyone involved.
In that case, the Yankees have only one real alternative. If A-Rod is going to be here, they might as well use him. And use him daily, against all kinds of pitching. Because the same way they should use their remaining 56 games finding out exactly what they have down on the farm, they should also find out if there is anything left in the bat of their 41-year-old, $275 million designated hitter.
The charade of a wild-card spot is over; Tuesday's loss, in which their best starter, Masahiro Tanaka, was pounded for seven earned runs, including two home runs, in 6 1/3 innings, dropped them back to .500 (53-53) for the 12th time this season, and they have never been higher than four games over. Although they split these two games with the Mets and a mere two games separate them in the standings, there is no question which is the better team. And the Mets, defending National League champions, are going to be in a life-and-death battle just to earn a wild-card spot.
So there is no point in the Yankees deluding themselves anymore. The remaining two months of the season are for experimentation and intelligence gathering. It seems counter-intuitive to not try to learn everything you can about a player in whom you have already sunk more than $300 million, and still owe some $27 million more.
Rodriguez will be the first to admit he has had a horrible season; currently, he is batting .204, has hit only nine home runs in 216 at-bats, has driven in only 29 runs and carries an anemic .608 OPS. Still, he is hitting nine points higher than Mark Teixeira, who has the same number of home runs, five fewer RBIs and an even lower OPS (.604), and 17 points higher than Aaron Hicks, who has three homers, 19 RBIs and a .535 OPS.
Carlos Beltran having been traded, the Yankees could do worse than to restore Rodriguez to his previous duties as the full-time DH just to see if he has anything left with regular playing time.
Lately, it hasn't looked that way. Rodriguez has started only one game since July 22, and it did not go well; he struck out four times, three of them against Tampa Bay's left-hander Drew Smyly, and on one of those he stared at a 2-2 fastball down the middle clocked at 91 mph, seemingly unable to pull the trigger on what looked like a very hittable pitch. He followed that debacle with a pinch-hitting appearance Sunday in which he struck out again, and while Girardi sent him out on deck to pinch hit Monday night, he pulled him back at the last moment in favor of rookie Ben Gamel, whom he sent up to bunt.
His at-bat in Tuesday night's game represented incremental progress; for the first time in six at-bats, he at least put the ball in play.
But it is not fair to judge any player, let alone a player with Alex Rodriguez's résumé, on a handful of at-bats spread over several weeks of games. Let's see him out there on a regular basis once again to truly know if he is a shot fighter, or merely a very rusty one.
When asked before the game if he thought the Yankees were on the verge of letting him go, A-Rod said, "I hope not. I hope not."
Now we know they are not, at least for the time being. In that case, if A-Rod is going to be around, the Yankees ought to play him. And often.