This was the perfect opportunity to, at least for one day, silence the boundless number of critics who say Rodriguez is good but can't hit in the clutch. It was one chance to break out of a horrid slump that has enveloped one of the game's biggest superstars.
Then came the strike-three whiff.
At the end of Thursday's game, it was an 8-4 loss in the series finale for the Yankees, not just for Rodriguez.
"I don't have any answers," Rodriguez said. "I could have gotten a base hit that would have probably won it. So you can write the worst articles, say the worst things, and you're probably right right now. So go right ahead."
But as hard as anybody not wearing a uniform will be on Rodriguez, he assured reporters that he'll be harder on himself.
After the strikeout, Rodriguez didn't just tap his helmet on the dugout railing or take a few practice cuts while walking to the dugout this time. He's had 15 strikeouts in the past 11 games, but this time he was beyond frustrated. Rodriguez had problems putting his bat back in the wooden rack, so he proceeded to slam it in multiple times.
Many players would be content with a 1-for-4 day with a home run. But when one is mired in a 6-for-40 slump and has heard criticisms about producing only when the game isn't on the line, that stat line isn't so comforting.
"It certainly felt great, but you have to help the team win," Rodriguez said of the homer. "And I didn't do that."
Rodriguez struck out on a high slider, a great pitch to hit, he said while shaking his head. But that wasn't the final out of the inning. Jorge Posada had the same opportunity with runners on second and third, this time with two outs. He struck out as well, giving the Yankees just one run in an inning where the bases were loaded with nobody out.
But the fans didn't boo Posada. They didn't boo Mike Mussina either, even though he had his worst outing of the season and put the Yankees in a 6-1 hole.
"It's just what people expect from him," Johnny Damon said. "He's the highest-paid ballplayer. They expect him to do well all the time."
"We win and lose as a team," Derek Jeter added. "One person isn't going to be the reason why we lose. You can't put too much pressure on one particular person."
Mussina was beat up by a pair of Indians hitters who entered Thurday's game on a combined 0-for-36 slump and were hitting seventh and eighth in the lineup. That's not to mention Ronnie Belliard, who was 1-for-7 in the series before going 3-for-3 with three runs off Mussina.
The staff's unquestioned leader allowed nine hits and six earned runs, both a season high. It was Mussina's second straight loss after seven straight wins.
"You know there is going to be peaks and valleys," Mussina said. "It's still frustrating when you bump into one of these days."
In the second inning, Mussina allowed three straight doubles after getting the first out. Belliard started the rally, Jhonny Peralta then snapped his 0-for-17 slump and Todd Hollandsworth put an end to his 0-for-19 skid directly after, putting up the Indians up 2-0 early.
Those same three same hitters knocked Mussina out of the game four innings later. Belliard and Peralta each laced two-out singles, bringing Yankees manager Joe Torre out to the mound. Torre just wanted to see how Mussina was feeling and quickly returned to the dugout with his ace still on the mound.
Hollandsworth hit the second pitch after the visit about 440 feet to dead center field for a three-run homer, giving the Indians a commanding 6-1 sixth-inning lead. Hollandsworth entered the game hitting .182 with no homers and four RBIs.
"I don't care what the numbers are, the guy at the plate is always a dangerous hitter," Mussina said. "I didn't make the best pitches, and when I made a mistake, they jumped on it."
The Yankees blasted their way back into the game. Rodriguez led off the bottom of the sixth with a mammoth homer that landed in a loading dock behind the Yankees' bullpen. Three batters later, Bernie Williams added a solo shot of his own to make the score 6-3.
Bubba Crosby, fresh off the disabled list and filling in for Damon, who left the game with a minor twinge in his hamstring, led off the eighth inning with a double. Melky Cabrera walked and Jeter was hit by a pitch, loading the bases.
Jason Giambi hit a liner to first baseman Ben Broussard, who bobbled it. The throw to second hit Jeter in the back, but in an effort to stay on his feet and block the throw, the Yankees shortstop overran second base and was tagged out.
A run scored, and after a stolen base by pinch-runner Miguel Cairo, the scene was set for Rodriguez. And despite Rodriguez's earlier home run, even Torre knew it would be a defining moment.
"It still comes down to getting up with a couple men on base in a situation and being able to do what he knows how to do," Torre said. "He probably makes it a higher mountain than it really is."
Rodriguez said he has been preparing too much for games and that he needs to subtract rather than add more workload to pull out of the slump. Torre said he would think about mixing up the lineup for Friday's game to see what that did. It's just a matter of relaxing, Torre said.
"Listen, at the end of the year, I know what I'm going to do, I know where I'm going to be," Rodriguez said. "I'm going to help this team win a lot of games. Just right now, it's not happening for me."
The Yankees now head to Washington for the first time since 1971, after a long homestand. But as Rodriguez said, maybe it's good to get a little change of scenery.