For A-Rod, the cage sets the stage

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez wants you to pay no attention to the numbers on that page, and plenty of attention to that man behind the curtain.

According to the Wonderful Wizard of Al, the real work this spring is not being done on the field, where with two Grapefruit League games left before the Yankees go north, the numbers are .404, 6 home runs, 14 RBIs and 7 doubles, by far the best of anyone on the team.

It is being done early, in the cage, with hitting coach Kevin Long, where, A-Rod says, "That's where I see all the difference. One swing here, one swing there, it's irrelevant this time of the year. It's the work we do behind the curtains that counts, and overall, I think endurance-wise I'm better, I have more consistency through my swing, more flexibility and I think there's just more explosion there."

Spring training is full of stories like this, about guys in the Best Shape of Their Lives primed to have the Biggest Season of Their Career. Nine times out of 10, it's a sham. I remember one year reading how Mo Vaughn had come to Mets camp with a six-pack. Turned out it was in his refrigerator, not his midsection.

But when Alex Rodriguez says something like this -- "I don't put much stock into the numbers, but overall I think right now I feel much better than I have in the past" -- it might not be a bad idea to at least listen.

A-Rod took the 2½-hour schlep down to Ft. Myers on Sunday, along with Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Eric Chavez and the cast of the 2011 Scranton Yankees for the game with the Twins, a messy affair in which Buddy Carlyle started for the Yankees and Pat Venditte, a novelty act who pitches with either hand, finished up.

"It was the end of a long negotiation and I lost," he joked about having to take the ride while Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Brett Gardner and Nick Swisher remained back in Tampa. "Actually, I like Ft. Myers. It's a cool venue. But don't tell my manager. I don't like it that much."

By the time the Twins won, 7-6, A-Rod was long gone, speeding up I-275 in his Maybach. There are no two-way bus trips in spring training for Alex Rodriguez anymore, just guest appearances and swift, expensive rides back.

On Sunday, the long drive got him two at-bats, neither of which amounted to anything, a fly out and a strikeout. It was only the second spring game in which he failed to get a hit, and one of the few in which he didn't drive in a run or wow the crowd, and his teammates, with a moon shot or two.

But he declared himself ready for the season, and even if he refused to put a number on how many home runs or RBIs the 2011 season would bring -- he had 30 home runs, low for him, last year, and 125 RBIs, good for anyone who played just 137 games -- he did set one fairly ambitious goal that practically assures a good season if he can reach it.

"I think it all starts with games played," he said. "I think you need to post up a high number. I think 150 is always a good starting point. Without that, obviously you can't do some of the special things that I did in [2007] and other years."

Although he has played the entire 162 three times in his career and 161 in two other seasons, A-Rod hasn't hit 150 games played since '07, when he hit 54 homers, drove in 156 runs and batted .314 in winning his third MVP.

He's not predicting that kind of a season this year, or, at 35-going-on-36, maybe ever again. "I don't want to set myself up for failure," he said.

But Long has said 40-plus home runs is a reasonable expectation for this season, and Joe Girardi is the one who threw out the number 150 in the first place, in answer to a question about what he hoped to get out of his third baseman once the games become real on Thursday.

"I think he's moving great," Girardi said. "I watch his swing and it looks extremely fluid. Whenever a guy drives the ball straightaway or to right-center, you feel really good about how they feel physically too, because he's not cheating to do anything."

Long, who can discuss hitting in intricate and sometimes mind-numbing detail, was more succinct: "He's ready to go. Maybe more ready than anybody on this squad."

The difference, Long and Rodriguez believe, is that A-Rod's right hip is finally, completely healed, nearly two years after surgery to repair a torn labrum.

"I don't think [the hip] was as much of a bother as just functional," Rodriguez said. "I think maybe there's more flexibility, more explosion this year. I don't think it was a pain issue. I just think it was limited somewhat."

"He had to really fight to get his hips and his lower half included [in his swing] the last few years, and now, he's getting all the way through the ball," Long said. "Last year when he came into the cage, his work would be just so-so, but now every time he steps in, it's special. He's definitely got more life on his swing. The ball just jumps off his bat."

In spite of A-Rod's production, that is what the middle of the Yankees' lineup lacked last season, the fearsome home run threat that was Alex Rodriguez circa 2007.

"Man, that was fun," he said. "Wow, I slept great every night that year. There are just some years when you look up and you're like, 'Holy ----!' That's not normal. To use that as a barometer, it would be very tough."

And although he cautioned against taking his spring numbers and using them to project a return to 2007-type numbers, he admitted, "It's always better to hit .400 than .200. But at the end of the day, if my work is not consistent behind the curtains, I think no one feels good."

Four days before the start of the regular season, Alex Rodriguez feels good. Whatever is going on behind that curtain seems to be working.

NOTES: Carlyle allowed five runs and got just four outs, but only two of the runs were earned after center fielder Austin Krum committed two errors on one play in the second inning. First, he dropped a routine fly with two runners on, then threw wildly to the plate, allowing both runners to score. ... LHP Steve Garrison, announced as "in the mix" to replace injured reliever Pedro Feliciano before the game, followed Carlyle and allowed a triple to Matt Tolbert in the second and a monstrous home run by Jim Thome leading off the third. After the game, Girardi said he was still in the mix. "He's done a good job for us against left-handers this spring," Girardi said. "He's a viable option for us. You'll probably see him throw one more time before we leave camp." ... Cano and Austin Romine homered for the Yankees. Ambidextrous pitcher Venditte pitched in the eighth, providing a comical moment when switch-hitter Matt Tolbert momentarily didn't know which batting helmet to choose. Hitting left-handed, Tolbert grounded out. ... A.J. Burnett (1-1, 2.77) makes his final start of the spring Monday night against the Rays and RHP James Shields (1-0, 1.88). First pitch 7:05 p.m. YES will televise.