You just knew the game would wind its way to Alex Rodriguez, just like it always does at the Yankees' moment of truth. The chess pieces were all in position: ninth inning, Bombers down by two to the Mets, runners on first and third, go-ahead run at the plate.
That was A-Rod, standing in against Francisco Rodriguez, who was working without much of a fastball or his best curveball. The at-bat lasted seven pitches -- each one of them had that end-of-the-world feeling to them, sort of like Bob Welch vs. Reggie Jackson in the '78 World Series.
This confrontation could only end one way: with a strikeout or home run.
It was the Subway Series at its most compelling -- crowd on its feet, along with a national television audience that didn't dare switch channels. It ended just the way Mets fans had prayed it would, with A-Rod swinging and missing at K-Rod's full-count curveball.
For the Mets, the 6-4 victory gave Jerry Manuel critical political capital. Taking the series from the Yankees means the beleaguered manager has the breathing room to survive the upcoming showdown with the Phillies. That's how tenuous Manuel's situation is: Sunday's game was as close to a must-win as the Mets have played all year.
The stakes were almost as high for the Yankees, who are now six games behind the younger, faster and more athletic Rays.
"We're taking our medicine," is what one Yankee official said after the Rays' two-game sweep in the Bronx. While the Bombers aren't ready to call their position in the standings a crisis, they concede the loss of Jorge Posada and Nick Johnson to the disabled list and Mark Teixeira's concurrent slump (6-for-39, two RBIs in his last eight games) have come at a bad time.
And then there's A-Rod, who, in retrospect, knows he could've done more with K-Rod's curveball. The pitch was overthrown, hanging dangerously over the plate, a mistake that, at another point in the season, might've been sent to the planets by the Yankee slugger.
But such blasts aren't coming as often as in the past: Rodriguez has just six HRs in 165 at-bats this season, which works out to one every 27. Since 1998, Rodriguez' rate has never been higher than 16.7.
One other damning metric to consider: throughout his career, 23 percent of Rodriguez' fly balls have cleared the wall. This year, that percentage has dropped to 9.7.
So what gives? His detractors point to what they consider the obvious culprit. Rodriguez is (finally) off steroids, and thus reduced to the numbers of mere mortals. The slugger says, however, it's all about timing.
"I'm seeing the ball well, I'm getting good swings, but I've definitely missed some chances to drive the ball," Rodriguez said the other day. "It'll come."
It's not just the HRs that have suffered, however. Rodriguez' slugging percentage is at a 13-year low (.497). It's still early, of course, and with three-quarters of the season remaining a surge isn't just possible, it's likely. But it's also worth remembering Rodriguez' stats have been in subtle decline for the last three seasons.
Ever since his MVP campaign in 2007, A-Rod has experienced drop-offs in batting average, home runs, slugging percentage and OPS. He'll be 35 in another two months, and while Rodriguez is still capable of unique displays of power -- just ask Jonathan Papelbon, who surrendered a ninth-inning HR to Rodriguez a week ago -- one talent evaluator said, "I'm sure the Yankees are wondering if Alex is still in his prime or is now in his late prime. There's a difference."
The Yankee staff, understandably, doesn't allow itself to think that way. They point to Rodriguez's obsessive work habits and physical conditioning as reasons to believe a rally is coming.
"I think he'll have a month where he hits 13 or 15, and if he does that next month, he's going to have 22 home runs," said hitting instructor Kevin Long. "It's just a matter of when.''
"Just look at his at-bats," said manager Joe Girardi. "Sometimes you have no idea (a home run hot streak) is coming. It might just happen. That's how hitting is."
In the meantime, the Yankees are no longer the major league's No. 1 home run-hitting machine, dropping to No. 5 this year. Still, no one scores as many runs as the Bombers, which, considering they're operating at below-peak efficiency, gives them hope for catching the Rays.
"We know they're going to create problems," said Derek Jeter, although, as the Yankees are willing to believe, it's nothing a few more home runs can't solve.
Manuel's reprieve Just how close was Manuel to getting fired this weekend? The machinery was at least in the preparatory stages. Bob Melvin, who's been scouting for the Mets this season, was in attendance at Citi Field all weekend.
While the club's official explanation is that Melvin is based in New York and thereby at the ballpark on a semi-regular basis, the last three days were out of the ordinary.
According to one source, senior officials peppered Melvin with questions about the Mets' under-achievement. Ownership wanted to know how Melvin would succeed where Manuel has failed. Melvin's time at Citi Field was, in effect, a job interview.
That was before the Mets took two of three from the Yankees, so Melvin's responses were, for the moment, noted and archived. But the Manuel vigil continues. If and when a change is made, Melvin will be his replacement.
One person familiar with the thinking of Mets' officials says there is "no doubt" Melvin is the one being groomed for the job.