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The beginning of the end for Alex Rodriguez

NEW YORK -- The star athlete is almost always the last to know, so there Alex Rodriguez stood in front of his corner locker in the New York Yankees’ clubhouse, defiant, talking a good game even though he no longer plays one.

A determined-looking A-Rod told us we haven't heard the last of him and that he loves to prove people wrong. They were words he could once back up.

The problem is, in a month, he turns 41. He has two hip surgeries under his belt. The thunder has been sucked out of his bat. If it weren't for the $21 million he is owed this year and the $21 million he'll be due next season, he would already be an ex-Yankee.

He was once the most gifted -- albeit, yes, chemically aided -- athlete in the game, but time has already taken his glove, his speed and much of his power. The Yankees have placed his bat on life support.

Manager Joe Girardi, with a nudge from GM Brian Cashman, benched A-Rod for a second consecutive game against right-handed pitching on Monday. Rodriguez will start against Texas lefty Cole Hamels on Tuesday, then Wednesday and Thursday the Yankees face righties. Over the weekend, they are in San Diego, where there is no DH, and Rodriguez doesn't play the field anymore.

Unless he finds some magic beans he hasn't taken yet, there is no reason to think that Rodriguez can rediscover his past success. He hasn't been good for a long time.

Over his past 95 games, dating back to last year, he is hitting .204 with 17 homers and 49 RBIs in 333 at-bats. What the Yankees find particularly alarming this year is that A-Rod's OPS is a dismal .584 against righties compared to his very respectable .837 versus lefties. He will now be facing lefties almost exclusively.

It is probably overdue that the Yankees limited A-Rod's at-bats. The next step seems to be releasing him before the end of next year, perhaps much sooner.

Even though Rodriguez is owed another $21 million next season and is just five homers from 700, the Yankees won't be able to justify keeping him on the roster for too long.

If he doesn't play the field at all, doesn't pinch run, doesn't play against righties, it would be pretty hard to keep him around long-term.

“You haven’t heard the last of me,” Rodriguez said.

How exactly he stays relevant is a little hard to fathom. If he is getting only limited at-bats, mostly against lefty starters, it's difficult to imagine Rodriguez rewriting the final chapter of his unique career.

"You perform," Girardi said when asked how A-Rod can win his job back. "That’s the bottom line. We’re in the business of performing. So, you know, things change. Nothing is set in stone."

It is not, but the Yankees seemed determined to let 39-year-old Carlos Beltran, who is their best batter, be the DH much more often. This allows Aaron Hicks, their best-fielding outfielder, to play right more. If Hicks approximates A-Rod's .200 average with five homers and 17 RBIs in 41 games against righties, the Yankees are a better team.

This is all fuel for A-Rod. He is a prideful athlete, whose vanity has led to many of his issues. He will do everything in his power to not be embarrassed. He was already relishing in the idea of making columns like this one look foolish.

“I’ve always enjoyed proving people wrong,” Rodriguez said.

Baseball is not a small-sample-size sport. A-Rod, for really the first time in his life, is about to become a small-sample-size player. How does he change Cashman's and Girardi's minds if he is getting only limited at-bats?

The simple answer is: He doesn't. If this plays out in the most likely way, the next step will be finding a way to push Rodriguez off the roster. Maybe it is an "injury" that allows the club to stash him on the DL, or perhaps owner Hal Steinbrenner cuts Rodriguez loose entirely.

Maybe A-Rod will have a moment or two over the next year and a half, but his extraordinary baseball story probably ends in the most ordinary fashion -- with someone telling him it is time to go home.