Long refuses to sell struggling sluggers short

Long refuses to sell struggling sluggers short

NEW YORK -- The sun glinted in Kevin Long's sunglasses as batting practice concluded on Tuesday afternoon, and the Yankees' hitting coach found a comfortable spot in front of the first-base dugout to present himself for public examination.

Long has been lavished with praise when things go well, as they have more often than not during his tenure with the club. So it only seemed fair to be available in a situation like this, as each of Alex Rodriguez's rockets seemed to sputter out of steam on the warning track.

"Listen, we were having these conversations about Derek Jeter, and we were ready to write him off," Long said on Tuesday. "And what happened? Right now, everybody's pushing the button on Alex, saying, 'Where's the power?' It's going to come."

Long's faith was rewarded a day later, as Rodriguez homered in his first two plate appearances of an 8-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals, snapping the 36-year-old's streak of 52 at-bats without clearing the outfield walls.

"I felt I was getting good pitches to hit, and I wasn't in a position to hit those pitches," Rodriguez said after the game. "The last two to three days, I've taken a lot of swings, and today, I put myself in a position to take my 'A' swing."

"While last year, 39 home runs but a low batting average wasn't good enough, I think I'd rather hit 39 home runs than 20 or 15. I'd rather drive in 111 runs than 80. I'm going to be more aggressive."
-- Mark Teixeira

So the Yankees arrived on the West Coast early Thursday with a little spring in their collective steps, speaking optimistically of a fresh beginning that some California sun could offer. Long hears the talk-radio chatter that A-Rod and Mark Teixeira are heading for a downturn; as in the case of Jeter's 2010 and the first half of 2011, Long refuses to believe it.

"I can't come to terms with a guy declining or not being what they're supposed to be," Long said. "I won't do it. I remember us talking about Derek Jeter last year, people just basically destroying him, and I wouldn't accept it.

"And I'm not going to accept Alex Rodriguez or Mark Teixeira. They're better than this. They're going to work their tails off, and they're going to get it done."

Teixeira often likes to speak about the numbers on the back of his baseball card to assure that at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs will be there at the end of the season; over the last eight years, he hasn't been proven incorrect.

"Fellas, he's not done. Not by any stretch of the imagination," Long said. "He's going to be just fine. He's going through a bad spell, and he needs to get out of it."

A nagging bronchial ailment sapped Teixeira's energy through the club's first 44 games, and Teixeira's coughing fits have prevented Long from working with him as much as both parties would like.

Teixeira batted seventh twice this week and is hitting just .226 with a .291 on-base percentage, owning five homers and 21 RBIs. He said that he needs to get back to focusing on power production rather than boosting his batting average.

"I've just been putting too many balls in play, I think," Teixeira said. "While last year, 39 home runs but a low batting average wasn't good enough, I think I'd rather hit 39 home runs than 20 or 15. I'd rather drive in 111 runs than 80. I'm going to be more aggressive."

The Yankees do seem to experience brownouts and slow starts every season, though that never seems to stop the back-page panic. Monday's 0-for-13 performance with runners in scoring position seemed to be a low point.

"In 2009, we talked about [RISP] until we were blue in the face, and we won the world championship," Long said. "I remember it. ... I remember it like it was yesterday. And I remember that we just kept going and kept grinding, and we came out of it."

Perhaps Tuesday's team meeting called by Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman, as first reported by the YES Network, will prove to be important.

In June 2009, Cashman met the team in Atlanta -- a rarity for the GM -- and delivered a fiery speech in a closed-door meeting, which some credit with helping to turn the year around.

But a few well-timed home runs from big bats may do much more than passionate words. In Rodriguez's case, the Yankees have gently massaged the slugger, who has already served as the designated hitter 12 times -- more than envisioned DHs Raul Ibanez (10) and Andruw Jones (five).

But those half-days have kept Rodriguez in the lineup, which is crucial to Long's belief that a healthy body can't help but lead to results.

"These guys, at some point, their productivity is going to go down," Long said. "It's just, from my standpoint, I can't come to terms with that. I can't go in there and say, 'OK, this guy's slowed down, he's not the same person.' We need to go in there and relive that magic and find it."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.