On Saturday afternoon, it seemed as if the Yankees had struck a crucial blow against the Orioles.
Baltimore's greatest strength all season has been its bullpen and its ability to find a way to win games decided by one run. The Yankees punctured both with a seventh-inning rally against set-up man Pedro Strop to set up a 4-3 win that restored the division lead to three games.
It felt like the moment where the air went out of the Orioles' balloon, at least until the sixth inning on Sunday when the team proved it had the ability to take a punch and return fire. Phil Hughes cruised through five innings, but Joe Girardi didn't recognize disaster brewing until after Mark Reynolds hit a three-run home run.
Girardi would have trouble navigating the minefield of middle relief once again, allowing the Orioles to run out to an 8-3 win that restored the panicky feelings that have been fluttering in stomachs across the city in the last few weeks. The Orioles aren't going away and the Rays are just 3.5 games back. The chances that the Yankees could miss out on the playoffs altogether are a lot greater today than they were on Friday.
That's the wrong direction to travel, obviously, and the Yankees could really use someone to halt that slide here and now. Someone who can strap on hero boots and keep the team afloat even though the lifeboat is showing more wear and tear than it would seem possible to bear.
Enter Alex Rodriguez.
All signs point to A-Rod's return in Tampa on Monday afternoon after more than a month on the shelf with a fractured bone in his hand, which makes sense because there's never been a player who found himself into more career-defining moments than Rodriguez. After a year spent sowing fear about all the years left on his contract because of injuries and ineffectiveness, Rodriguez can flip the narrative in the final weeks of the season.
If he comes back swinging the bat like the vintage A-Rod, boosting the offensive output and making it harder to notice the frayed edges of the lineup, it will go down as one of the great moments in his career. If he comes back as the same shell of his former self, Rodriguez will be a guy who couldn't perform when his team needed him the most, the damning definition of his entire Yankee tenure even though his play in 2009 was beyond essential to winning the World Series.
Intellectually, we know that the final standings will have to do with a lot more than A-Rod and that he's always been one cog that helped turn the wheel instead of the wheel itself. Emotionally, though, A-Rod has always elicited a different reaction and this return to work feels like the latest referendum on whether or not he has the fortitude to be a winner.
There's no question that this is a silly approach to take to the game of baseball and the men who play it. There's also no question that this is exactly how things will play out.
Given all that, it would be awfully nice if A-Rod came back with a blazing bat because we've had the conversation that goes with the other outcome more than enough for one lifetime.