NEW YORK -- If Alex Rodriguez had sat down to draw up how he expected his first week back in the major leagues to go, it's doubtful even a player with as healthy an ego as his could have come up with anything as unexpected as what we have seen over the New York Yankees' first six games of 2015.
In those six games, Rodriguez has gone from a guy who was welcomed back uneasily the past Monday -- the pregame reception for him on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium was decidedly mixed, with more than a few boos intermingled with the cheers -- to a player whose at-bats are now eagerly anticipated by the fans and anxiously anticipated by the opposition. (You have to know the difference between eagerness and anxiety to know what I'm talking about.)
It's not as though anyone has made things easy for him: Although Rodriguez has played in all of the first six games, he has batted in five different spots in the lineup -- as high as second and as low as seventh -- and on Saturday, he was asked to play first base for the first time in a big league game scarcely 12 hours after he had been pulled from the 11th inning of a game Friday night.
Perhaps not surprisingly, he has done everything asked of him, without complaint and, seemingly, with enthusiasm (though he was admittedly slow to pick up a first baseman's glove in spring training). What is surprising, however, is how well he has done most everything asked of him, after not facing a big league pitcher for more than a year and a half.
Through six games, Rodriguez leads the Yankees in batting (.300) and RBIs (6), and his OPS (.967) is second only to Mark Teixeira's .986. Teixeira is batting just .222.
On Sunday night, A-Rod came to bat with the bases loaded and one out in the first inning against the Boston Red Sox. Although he has succeeded in this situation more than any batter in history -- he finished the pre-Biogenesis portion of his career on Sept. 20, 2013, with his 24th grand slam and surpassed Lou Gehrig as baseball's all-time leader -- this at-bat could just as easily have ended in a rally-killing double play, and the way the Yankees had hit in their first five games, that might have been the safer bet.
Instead, Rodriguez jumped on a first-pitch cutter from Clay Buchholz, whom he had hit .400 against in 25 career at-bats, including two home runs, and drove it to the gap in left-center field to clear the bases. That jump-started a seven-run first inning and sent the Yankees' offense rolling to a 14-4 rout of the Red Sox, which helped them avert a disastrous sweep at home and 1-5 start, something not seen around here for 26 years.
The unusual, timely hit -- the Yankees had been 6-for-36 with runners in scoring position in their first five games -- prompted even the usually tight-as-a-snare-drum Joe Girardi to make a small joke at the expense of his players.
"That's a huge hit in the first inning for us," he said. "It really got us going. And you think about the three guys he drove in, that's not necessarily easy to do in that situation."
But that's the kind of night it was -- a laugher even for the manager.
For A-Rod, however, it was another test of his ability to not only come through on the field but also maintain an even keel in the clubhouse.
Since he arrived at spring training nearly a week in advance of the other Yankees regulars, Rodriguez has adopted humility and poise he rarely showed in his previous incarnation. He had read all the stories in which general manager Brian Cashman was quoted as saying he would have to earn his playing time, and he was aware of what it meant when the Yankees signed Chase Headley, partially on the promise that he would be the everyday third baseman.
Rodriguez could not have been sure of what the crowd reception would be, but he felt the cold shoulder of the front office when, at a January meeting in which he came to apologize and perhaps mend some fences, he was told in no uncertain terms that the Yankees had no intention of paying him the home run bonuses both sides had agreed upon. He also was told that though the club officially accepted his apology, the actions and statements from him and his lawyers during the grievance of his 162-game suspension by Major League Baseball would not be forgotten.
It would not have been difficult for Rodriguez to believe there were people in his own organization who not only wanted him to fail but also were willing to help him do so.
That makes his hot start all the more remarkable. A week into the season, there is nary a boo to be heard when he comes to the plate at Yankee Stadium. Rather, a buzz of expectation rises whenever he comes up, as if it were 2007 all over again, and it is hardly an area of dispute that this soon-to-be 40-year-old is the best hitter on the team.
After Sunday's game, in which he drove in a fourth run with a bases-loaded walk in the sixth inning, Rodriguez was asked if he could have imagined his first week back going so well.
"Well, I got a lot of good work in spring training," he said. "But I think anything I do this year is a surprise to a lot of people and sometimes to me too."
That could be false modesty, but there is probably a kernel of truth. Any player who for the past 18 months had hit only against college pitchers and, occasionally, Freddy Garcia could not possibly have been sure he could still cut it in the show. Despite his early success, A-Rod is maintaining a wait-and-see attitude, as if even he is not sure how long this will last.
"I mean, this is such an incredibly special year for me," he said. "So different. I don’t have anything to gauge it against. This is so unique, I don’t have anything to compare it to. Ask me sometime in mid-May, after I have maybe 100 at-bats. Then I’ll give you a much better barometer of where I'm at."
He could be a month better by then -- or maybe a month worse.
Or maybe he'll stay as he is right now, hitting the baseball after 19 months off almost as if he had never been away, which is more than he or the Yankees ever could have expected.