A-Rod officially joins supporting cast

With one swing of the bat, Alex Rodriguez went from Great Player to Great Teammate.

The swing was by Raul Ibanez, and he was swinging in place of Alex Rodriguez.

There was a time when a manager could not ask for a better choice in the situation -- team trailing by one out in the ninth inning and A-Rod coming to the plate -- but those days are now officially in the past.

Regardless of the date that his Yankee career ultimately comes to an end -- and he is signed through the 2017 season -- the period of Alex Rodriguez's career in which he is an important Yankee is now as good as over.

That period ended the minute Joe Girardi, in what may be remembered as a defining moment in his managerial career, tapped him on the shoulder and told him his night was done.

Ibanez's dramatic game-tying home run, a rocket off Orioles closer Jim Johnson into the distant right-center field seats, was merely the exclamation point to Girardi's move. The dagger had already been set.

Still, A-Rod put on a brave face, being among the first of the Yankees to greet Ibanez as he returned to the dugout, and smiling gamely as he spoke after the game -- won by yet another Ibanez home run, this one off Brian Matusz in the bottom of the 12th -- to a group of media that had come to write his professional obituary.

"Maybe 10 years ago I react in a much different way, but I'm at a place in my career right now where team means everything," he said. "I don't think there was anybody in the ballpark more excited for Raul than me."

Left unsaid, of course, is that 10 years ago such a move would have been unthinkable. Two years ago, even.

But the cries for A-Rod to be dropped in the Yankees batting order have grown deafening over the past few days -- to the point that even, as buttoned-up a manager as he is, Girardi acknowledged considering their validity.

When the time came to make out his lineup card for Wednesday night's Game 3, Girardi penciled Rodriguez into his customary third slot in his lineup card.

But when the time came for a Yankee to produce a big, and perhaps season-saving, hit, Girardi crossed it out and wrote in IBANEZ.

"I just went to him and said, 'You're scuffling a little bit right now,'" is how the manager recounted his conversation with the man who has hit more home runs than all but four other men in baseball history.

"Raul has been a good pinch hitter for us," Girardi said he told A-Rod. "And I'm just going to take a shot."

Girardi's gut was never more accurate than on this night, a night in which Rodriguez again looked overmatched at the plate, going 0-for-3 with two strikeouts against starter Miguel Gonzalez, the second on a check swing at the kind of pitch he used to crush, a 92-mph fastball out over the plate.

It was at that point in the game Girardi began considering what he would do when A-Rod's turn to hit came around again. After all, his No. 3 hitter was now batting .083 for the series, 1-for-12 -- a single -- with seven strikeouts.

"When he told me, I said, 'Joe, you gotta do exactly what you've gotta do,'" Rodriguez said. "Then I got up to the top step and started cheering. I just couldn't be happier for him."

And that is where Alex Rodriguez spent the last four innings of the most important Yankee game of the season. On the bench, reduced to a cheerleader.

"I wish I could go up there every time and do some serious damage because I really want to, but tomorrow is another day," he said. "Look, I wish that was me hitting two home runs tonight. If it wasn't me, it was the next best guy."

Inside, however, it had to be killing him that the sort of disregard for his abilities that has been shown this season by other managers -- several times this season, Robinson Cano has been walked in front of him, a couple of times even to load the bases, and it was only last week that Bobby Valentine walked Nick Swisher in front of him in the ninth inning with the potential winning run at second base -- was now being shown by his own.

"I never question my manager. That's where my head is now," he said. "I come out, I prepare very hard every day, and I got to tell you, I was as relaxed and enthused and as positive as I've been in a long time."

It wasn't always this way, of course. A-Rod and Joe Torre did not speak for years after Torre dropped him to eighth in his batting order for a decisive ALDS game against the Detroit Tigers in 2006.

But that one seemed personal. This one was based purely on performance, which has to make it more hurtful, and in a way, even more humiliating. Certainly, tougher to shrug off.

Rodriguez couldn't remember the last time he was pinch hit for. "Probably back in high school," he said.

"Listen, I'm Joe's biggest fan," Rodriguez said to the throng probing for any sign of what was really going inside his head and his gut. "Joe's always respected me to the utmost and I give it right back to him. We have 25 guys here. We're a family. And no matter how much we struggle or who does well, we just worry about getting victories and wins and that's exactly what we did tonight."

For his part, Girardi sidestepped the question of whether Rodriguez will be back in the lineup for Thursday's Game 4, the game that could send the Yankees to the ALCS.

"Listen, I don't even know who we're facing tomorrow," he said.

Informed that Buck Showalter had announced he would start left-hander Joe Saunders, Girardi said, "Let's just see what I've got tomorrow."

It is hard to believe that Girardi, a manager who is forever bound to his looseleafs, splits and spray charts, was unaware that against Saunders, Rodriguez is batting .400 lifetime with eight hits in 20 at-bats, two of them home runs.

But nothing seems guaranteed for Alex Rodriguez anymore, not the all-time home run record that once seemed to be his destiny, nor the plaque in Cooperstown, shrouded in doubt with the revelations of his steroid use, nor, even, his spot in the Yankees starting lineup.

When asked if he expected to be in the Game 4 lineup, Rodriguez said, "Absolutely. One hundred percent."

"Look, tomorrow that opportunity may come back for me again and I'll be ready," he said. "I'm going to attack and there's no hedging. I'm coming right back at 'em tomorrow. And I'm gonna be swinging outta my a--."

There may still be good moments for Alex Rodriguez as a Yankee, and the odds are there will be a spot in the Game 4 batting order with his name written on it.

But as we learned in Game 3, from here on, Alex Rodriguez's name on the Yankees lineup card will be written in pencil, easily erased, and easily replaced.