"This is the best I've felt in over a month," Rodriguez said after taking eight rounds of live batting practice on the field at the Rogers Centre before Friday night's game versus the Toronto Blue Jays. "I'm excited for tomorrow. I'm encouraged."
Rodriguez has been suffering from a sprained collateral ligament in his left thumb sustained on a dive for a ground ball in the eighth inning of a game on Aug. 21, his first game back after missing six weeks following knee surgery in July.
Since then, A-Rod has been in and out of the lineup with persistent pain in the thumb, and last played on Sept. 9 against the Los Angeles Angels. On Wednesday, manager Joe Girardi had expressed hope that Rodriguez would play in the opener of this three-game weekend set, but after a session of swings in the cage against a soft-tossing Kevin Long, Rodriguez was once again not in the Yankees lineup.
But Long, the hitting coach who has been credited with rebuilding the swings of Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, came up with what Rodriguez called "a novel idea" -- having him use a split grip on the bat, his hands separated by a narrow strip of adhesive tape on the handle, to reduce pressure on the injured thumb. The appliance was fashioned by assistant trainer Steve Donohue and attached to the handle of A-Rod's batting practice bat, creating about a half-inch of separation between his hands.
"The only pain I have is when I press down on the point of contact," A-Rod said, demonstrating how his top (healthy) hand rests on top of his injured left thumb in a normal batting grip. "I told Kevin and he said, 'Split 'em.' I thought, this guy's a (expletive) genius."
Rodriguez took his altered bat and new grip into the cage and hit four balls over the fence against the less-than-daunting pitching of first base coach Mick Kelleher and BP pitcher Brett Weber. Still, he was happy enough about the results to consider the possibility of being available to pinch hit in Friday night's game and to plan on playing Saturday afternoon.
"There's definitely going to be a little adjustment, but anything to alleviate pain," he said. "I'm going to do this on my game bat (Saturday)."
Rodriguez has appeared in nine of the 24 games played by the Yankees since he returned from the surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, and in those games, he had seven hits in 36 at-bats (.194) with two home runs and four RBIs.
Overall, he is hitting .284 with 15 home runs and 56 RBIs, and his streak of having at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs for 13 straight seasons is all but dead. Before the game, Girardi acknowledged that with 14 regular-season games left before the playoffs, having a full-strength A-Rod in his lineup may simply may no longer be a realistic expectation.
"I try not to think about that, but it is a real possibility," Girardi said. "We don't know how he's going to respond when he gets in the games here and everything speeds up. It is a concern."
The Yankees went 24-13 in A-Rod's absence with the knee injury, and have gone 14-10 in the 24 games since his return. Still, Girardi continues to consider him a vital part of his postseason lineup and is concerned there will not be enough opportunities for Rodriguez to hit in game situations through the remaining schedule to sufficiently prepare him for postseason play.
"You start talking about time and there's not a lot of time left in the season," Girardi said. "It's been six days since he's had an at-bat, and everything's been interrupted, so that's a concern too. Timing and him feeling comfortable, that's the important thing. You want to get him as many at-bats as you can to get him going."
Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com.