Around the Horn: Corner infielders

Around the Horn: Corner infielders

With the start of Spring Training just weeks away, the time has come to start sizing up the 2010 Yankees, piece by piece. MLB.com will go around the horn and break down each area of the Yankees, continuing with the corner infielders.

One of the turning points for the Yankees last season came on the evening of May 8 in Baltimore, when Alex Rodriguez dug in and swatted the first pitch he saw over the wall, a moment that rivaled most anything Hollywood could script.

It was a big moment for A-Rod, of course, coming back from right hip surgery that he later admitted was career-threatening. But it also proved to be huge for Mark Teixeira, who could watch that baseball fly from his vantage point on first base and trot around the bases with an exhale.

With Rodriguez offering lineup protection, the Yankees' 3-4 punch started to roll, offering all of the production that was expected of the game's highest-priced corner infield set. The Yankees were a Major League-best 90-44 after Rodriguez's return, and Teixeira was one of the main benefactors.

"I really felt great about this team in Spring Training," Teixeira said. "I know we had a tough first month; I had a tough first month. You might look at the series in Baltimore when Alex came back as one of the turning points of the season. He hits a home run on his very first swing, and it kind of put some life into our team."

Overcoming a slow start that had him jeered at times in the Bronx, and staring at a batting average in the .190s, Teixeira said goodbye to the Mendoza line for good, hitting .310 in 131 games after May 8 and leading the American League in home runs (34) and RBIs (107) over that span. It was no coincidence.

"The very first week, when I came to Baltimore, we went out to lunch," Rodriguez said. "We talked about a lot of good things. I think we make a good combination. Obviously, he's a switch-hitter -- which is very powerful in the middle of the lineup -- and I'm righty. I think we make a good team. We help each other out."

Rodriguez's return made the Yankees whole again. As he hoisted the World Series trophy above the infield in November, it would have been impossible to predict the twists and turns of that saga from Spring Training, when he admitted past steroid use and then disappeared from the spotlight to have surgery in Vail, Colo.

With Cody Ransom instead taking the field as the Yankees' Opening Day third baseman, Rodriguez had plenty of time to be alone with his thoughts, a period that proved therapeutic. Showing renewed focus, Rodriguez was better able to block outside distractions, and he reaped the rewards, speaking less and simply allowing his lethal bat to do the talking.

"I'm proud of the fact that I stayed with the plan," Rodriguez said. "I'm a baseball player. The goal was to come in and simplify things this year, and I've done that. I think it's a formula that worked this year, and it will work in the future."

Rodriguez hit .286 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in 124 games for New York after missing 28 games due to the surgery, ranking second in the AL in RBIs and tying for second in home runs after May 8. He was able to round his numbers with a barrage on the season's final day, belting two homers and driving in seven runs at Tropicana Field. He grinned like a kid after the second homer, and with good reason.

"I know he's had a lot of fun this year," Teixeira said at the time. "We have had fun together. I've really enjoyed being in this hitting group. Having him hitting behind me ... it's been a lot of fun, actually. After every win, we're the first two to greet each other from first and third base. We just enjoy the time together that we've had this season."

The Yankees had to take care to protect Rodriguez's hip at times, revisiting a rest program after a June trip to Atlanta, but the extra care helped Rodriguez stave off a second surgery after the season and led Dr. Marc Philippon to give him a clean bill of health heading into the 2010 campaign.

In what would prove to be a precursor to his postseason success, Rodriguez successfully worked to shed his label as an "unclutch" performer, having been involved in scoring or driving in the game-winning or tying run in six of the Yankees' 15 walk-off victories -- including a very memorable two-run homer in the 15th inning of an Aug. 7 victory over the Red Sox.

"For me, I was just so tired of the whole 'unclutch' thing," Rodriguez told the YES Network this week. "It was just very annoying, but to come over and be part of a championship team and get some of the biggest hits of my career and to deliver for my teammates when they needed me, that certainly feels really good and I'm very relieved."

Naturally, A-Rod wasn't alone with the walk-off magic, and he and Teixeira were both involved in one of the plays that will go down in New York lore.

On June 12, Rodriguez spiked his bat after lifting a popup that appeared to be a game-ending out against the Mets, but second baseman Luis Castillo dropped the ball. Charging from first base, Teixeira scored on a play that would prove to be a good indicator of his baseball acumen and drive.

"What stands out is Mark Teixeira's hustle," Rodriguez said after that game. "That wins the game. To me, that's why he's my MVP of the American League right now. He's doing everything. That kind of hustle is indicative of what Mark Teixeira brings to our team."

Teixeira's skill set proved to be one of the qualities that helped the Yankees reach the highest level, including his Gold Glove Award-winning defense, which most agreed made the entire infield better. Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano were free to take certain liberties on throws, knowing Teixeira would be there to bail them out.

"That guy has changed the whole infield," Cano said. "Before, I had to pay attention to my left, to my right. Now, when they have a pull hitter, I stay away from the line. He can cover the whole first-base side, and I can move toward the middle so Jeter can move over a little bit. He's not good, he's great."

The Yankees figure to use Nick Johnson as their backup first baseman on days when Teixeira takes days off or serves as the designated hitter, with Nick Swisher able to tuck his infield glove away for the time being. Ramiro Pena appears to be the early favorite to back up Rodriguez at third base after making 14 starts there in 2009.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.