Is this the beginning of A-Rod's end?

NEW YORK -- Alex Rodriguez said that he desperately wanted his bases-loaded moment in the seventh, that he would have paid millions for his chance to win the division series with one swing, and he spoke with the credibility of a superstar who had already paraded under a ticker-tape rain.

"A dream at-bat," Rodriguez said of his fateful encounter with a Detroit Tigers reliever named Joaquin Benoit, who came to the mound wearing a bandage on his cheek the size of the Yankee Stadium tarp.

Worried his hitters would be distracted, Joe Girardi, manager of the New York Yankees, had the umpires strip Benoit of his bandage, exposing what Tigers manager Jim Leyland called "a big lump on his face."

But Girardi couldn't strip the pitcher of his powers, or of his ability to throw an 86 mph splitter that would reduce A-Rod to a flailing Game 5 mess and, ultimately, leave him once again as the face of a first-round flameout, the master of another Yankees disaster.

"You relish those opportunities," Rodriguez said after Tigers 3, Yankees 2 sent the Central Division underdogs to Texas and the league championship series and sent the defanged beast of the AL East freefalling into a most unforgiving winter.

A-Rod was wearing a golf visor at his locker, though he was in no mood to book his first offseason tee time. "The irony is I was waiting for that at-bat all series," he said. "I felt like I never really had a situation to really make a really big difference, and that was the one. And I came up short."

By the time Rodriguez faced Jose Valverde with two outs in the ninth and nobody on, everyone in the house -- including A-Rod -- knew the endgame. One of the greatest sluggers of them all made the final out on a whiff in Texas last year, and he would make the final out on a whiff in the Bronx this year.

And after it was over, Rodriguez took on all comers at his corner locker, gracefully and graciously fielding question after question about a .111 batting average posted five years after he hit .071 in another division series loss to Detroit. At least this time he didn't bat eighth.

"It's devastating," the third baseman said. "This one is going to hurt for a long time. ... I'll be 50 and this will still hurt."

In the heat of a full-blown catharsis, Rodriguez even made this confession: "I still lose sleep over 2004." He was talking about the four straight ALCS losses to the Red Sox, of course. He was the face of that one, too.

Only the Yankees fan base shouldn't come away from this series wondering whether Rodriguez choked (he didn't), or whether he is doomed to keep treating the postseason the way Greg Norman used to treat Sundays at Augusta National (he won't).

Rodriguez did win a liberating championship in 2009, and did so as a driver instead of a passenger, and that cannot be taken from him.

But the fan base should be afraid -- very, very afraid -- that what everyone saw Thursday night in the Bronx was the beginning of A-Rod's end as a dynamic offensive force.

Listen, he was hardly the lone Yankee to blame on this bitter night. Ivan Nova surrendered back-to-back first-inning homers before getting hurt. CC Sabathia didn't come through out of the 'pen, just like he didn't come through in his Game 3 start. Derek Jeter struck out eight times in the series, Nick Swisher didn't deliver when he had to, again, and Girardi never should've thrown Luis Ayala out there at the end of Game 2.

The Yankees' most important player, Mariano Rivera, threw eight pitches -- all for strikes -- in five games. That about said it all.

As a team, the Yanks just weren't good enough to get to the second round. Rodriguez is their biggest name and highest-paid player, and it seems every defining October moment since 2004 has involved an A-Rod at-bat.

"I was actually surprised that Game 2 didn't come down to me," Rodriguez said, "when [Robinson Cano] grounded out to second. That's the way it goes. I love that. I would pay to be in that situation with Benoit."

Instead he paid for being in that situation with Benoit. Rodriguez was overmatched in this all-or-nothing duel, and again in the Valverde faceoff that ended the season. A-Rod looked like a shot fighter, or at least like a diminished athlete worn down by the knee surgery, the thumb injury, the lingering effects of the hip surgery, and various other aches and pains.

At least a half-dozen times, he refused to blame his failing 36-year-old body for what went down against Detroit. "Whatever happened in this postseason is on me," he said, "let's make that crystal clear. There's no excuses for what happened in these five games. I was healthy enough to do what I had to do."

Yet A-Rod would speak out of both sides of his mouth, agreeing that the injuries and surgery made 2011 a season without any rhythm or flow. "I don't think I ever recovered the way I needed to," he said. A-Rod played 99 games after setting a goal of 150.

"I've got to get my health back in order," he agreed.

Rodriguez said that he had a fitness plan in place to restore his body in the offseason, and that he "without a question" will return as a 30-homer, 100-RBI man.

"I'm going to come back with a vengeance," he pledged.

This is where Rodriguez didn't sound so credible. It looks like he's falling apart physically, which is what aging ballplayers eventually do.

A break or two Thursday night would've temporarily bailed him out. Rob Thomson, third base coach, could've sent him home in the fourth. Jeter could've gotten slightly better wood on his flyout to right in the eighth, the one that screamed out for a grownup Jeffrey Maier.

But no, Rodriguez had to be unlucky No. 13. He had to make the biggest out of the series, and the final out, too.

Girardi spoke with him in the dugout in the ninth as he waited to hit, and no reassuring words could make a difference. Rodriguez struck out on a 94 mph fastball, tapped the barrel of his bat against his foot, and dropped his head as he trudged toward the losers' dugout.

"I don't have any regrets," A-Rod said. "I played my a-- off."

Yes, he'll play hard over the final six years of his contract. But the laws of gravity say Alex Rodriguez will have a hard time staying healthy, and an even harder time staying dominant.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter". Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.