In Thursday night's decisive Game 5, Alex Rodriguez batted in the ninth inning with the game, and the Yankees' season, on the line. Rodriguez struck out swinging against Jose Valverde, sealing the Yankees' fate and allowing the Tigers to move on. The strikeout capped off a difficult series for Rodriguez, and in response, baseball fans across the country have acted in a reasonable and sympathetic fashion.
"It's just so hard, what he does," tweeted Andrea Parkhurst of Middlebury, CT. "I feel so bad for him that he struggled in that kind of spotlight. He must be feeling so down."
Including Thursday's performance, Rodriguez went 2 for 18 in the series, with two singles and six strikeouts. He finished with fewer hits than any of the other Yankee regulars, and scored just one run. He left seven runners on base, including three in Game 5.
While Rodriguez was responsible for the season-ending strikeout, his biggest at-bat might have come earlier Thursday, when he faced Joaquin Benoit in the seventh inning with the bases loaded, one out, and the score 3-1. Rodriguez struck out swinging then as well, putting all the pressure on the batter behind him.
"Yeah, he had a tough series and a tough night," said Yankees fan Tony Martinek, who was in attendance. "But what about Teixeira? 3 for 18. What about Swisher? 4 for 19. Martin? 3 for 17. Lots of guys didn't come through. This was a team effort. Everybody's to blame."
It's unknown what role injury might have played in Rodriguez's struggles. He was placed on the disabled list with a knee injury in July that sidelined him for a month and a half, and after his return he didn't produce at his normal level. Despite denials from Rodriguez, suspicion is that he was playing hurt, which has earned him points with Yankees fans and non-Yankees fans alike.
"He's a gamer, you know?" remarked Scranton's Rob Byrd in a blog post. "He toughed it out. He wasn't 100 percent, but he still went out there because he didn't want to let his team down."
Added Kenneth Collins in a comment, "You have to respect anybody who plays through pain. Of course it's a consideration that he was playing injured. That's just team over individual. He left it all on the field."
Shortly after Rodriguez's closing strikeout Thursday night, so many fans took to Twitter to express their compassion that his full name became a trending topic. On Facebook, a group titled "THANK YOU A-ROD!!" was quickly formed and almost immediately soared beyond 5,000 members. The group description reads:
"This is a group for Yankees fans who are appreciative of Alex Rodriguez manning up and playing down the stretch. He didn't have his best playoff performance, but he's come up huge before and he'll come up huge again. Thank you Alex for giving it your all!"
It's going to be a long off-season for Rodriguez and the Yankees, as they reflect on a 2011 season that didn't go the way they wanted, and as they consider how they can make sure this doesn't happen again in 2012. A pensive Rodriguez remained in the Yankees' clubhouse Thursday night long after most of his teammates had departed. As he sat staring into his locker, a clubhouse assistant approached and handed him a bouquet of flowers that had been delivered to the stadium.
The flowers were from an anonymous admirer. The card simply read, "To one of the best in the business."