Alex Rodriguez, so vital to Yankees, homers on first swing of spring

TAMPA, Fla. -- You would think that after 687 home runs in big league games and who knows how many more in fake baseball games such as the one played Thursday at Steinbrenner Field, Alex Rodriguez would be tired of watching the flight of a baseball as it leaves his bat.

Yet there he was, standing still at home plate and following with his eyes the product of his first real swing of the 2016 spring training season. It was a high-arcing fly ball off an offering from Adam Morgan of the Philadelphia Phillies, and it landed beyond the left-field fence to give the New York Yankees a 2-1 lead in the first inning.

“I do that all the time," A-Rod said. “I do the same thing on a pop-up to short."

Luckily for the Yankees, this hit was not a pop-up to short, and as Joe Girardi said, “I hope it happens a lot more."

Girardi means in real games, of course. Of all the things that could go wrong for the Yankees this season -- from the fragility of the starting rotation to the age of many key players to the uncertainty about which collection of middle relievers will get the ball to the closing firm of Betances, Miller & Chapman -- one of the most likely is that Alex Rodriguez, the team’s full-time DH, will not be able to match his 2015 production.

“Look, as long as I play, I’m always going to have questions," Rodriguez said. “This is a results-oriented business. The team needs me to be productive in the middle of the lineup and bring some added value both in the clubhouse and on the field.”

A-Rod’s home run, on the second live pitch he has seen this spring -- the first was a high-and-tight fastball -- turned out to be the highlight of the game for the Yankees. After they took a 3-2 fourth-inning lead, a collection of six relievers followed Ivan Nova's tidy two-inning start and allowed 11 runs in a 13-4 Yankees loss.

But most of this game’s culprits -- Jacob Lindgren, who allowed four runs on three walks and a hit batter in one-third of an inning; Anthony Swarzak, who allowed three of Lindgren’s baserunners, plus two of his own, to score by allowing four hits; and James Pazos, who surrendered three in two-thirds of an inning -- are likely to be only occasional visitors to Yankee Stadium via the Scranton Shuttle.

Rodriguez, who started 138 games last season, is being counted on to do close to that again this season. This time, preferably, he'll do so without the second-half fade.

His home run Thursday was an auspicious debut, but as always in baseball, it’s not how you start but how you finish that determines whether your season has been a success.

To that end, manager Joe Girardi is thinking hard about ways to keep his 40-year-old DH -- A-Rod will turn 41 on July 27 -- fresh not just up until the All-Star break but to the end of the season and hopefully beyond.

“Maybe a few more days off," Girardi offered as a possible solution. “But you have to remember ... there were some periods where he had some substantial time off because we were playing in National League parks. It could have been mental, physical, a lot of different things. He had a lot to deal with last year. But I’ll try to rest him when I feel he needs a rest or when he feels he needs a rest. We’ll try to take care of him."

The hope is that whatever ailed Rodriguez at the end of last season was cured by his coming to camp this year without the stigma of the longest drug-related suspension in baseball history and by the gradual repair of relations among A-Rod, the league and his own team.

“I don’t think I can compare last spring to any spring in my career," he said. “There were just so many unknowns, so many question marks. This year, the biggest thing is I don’t have any distractions. I’m clear-headed, I’m coming in with a good attitude every day, and I understand I have a purpose. I feel lighter.”

He isn’t any lighter, physically. Thursday was weigh-in day, and A-Rod, who is listed at 230 in the Yankees media guide, weighed in at 234.

In an effort to bolster his conditioning, Rodriguez has been doing morning track workouts at the nearby University of Tampa under the tutelage of Malachi Davis, a 2004 Olympian who ran the 400 for Great Britain. The workouts include sprints, stretching and plyometric training.

“It’s not making me any faster," Rodriguez told ESPN.com. “My fast days are over. But I do feel a little quicker."

Then, he added jokingly, “I’m exhausted by the time I get here."

Girardi had A-Rod batting third in the lineup against the Phillies. That's the batting order position Rodriguez occupied for most of last year, once it became obvious his would be one of the two truly dangerous bats in the Yankees' lineup.

As part of the Keep A-Rod Fresh movement, Girardi is likely to play Rodriguez every other day for much of the spring. He is not on the travel roster for the team's game against the Detroit Tigers on Friday in Lakeland, but he will play Saturday at home against the Red Sox.

Unlike last spring, there will be no grounders at third base, no breaking in of a first baseman’s glove, no toying with the idea that at this stage of his career, Alex Rodriguez is more than a one-dimensional ballplayer.

His dimension is hitting -- preferably home runs.

“It was fun -- no doubt about it," Rodriguez said of his home run. “Obviously, you’re not looking to hit home runs this early in spring or even to drive the ball. You’re looking to see the ball well and put good swings on it. For me, there are going to be some good days and some bad days."

For the Yankees to be successful this season, they need as many good days as they can coax out of Alex Rodriguez -- for as long as he can provide them.