By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Yankees benched their struggling slugger Alex Rodriguez, Major League Baseball's highest paid player, for Friday's do-or-die playoff game against the Baltimore Orioles.
Rodriguez, who was getting $29 million this season and MLB's active leader in career home runs and runs batted in, has struggled mightily at the plate and was pinch-hit for late in the last two games of their Division Series against the Orioles.
With the best-of-five series tied 2-2 following Baltimore's 2-1 win in 13 innings on Thursday, Yankee manager Joe Girardi opted to put Rodriguez on the bench and play left-handed hitting Eric Chavez at third base against Baltimore's right-handed starting pitcher Jason Hammel.
"It's a tough decision, there's no doubt about it, because of what he's meant to our club," Girardi told reporters before the climactic Game Five at Yankee Stadium.
"But I just thought with the struggles that he's had, I'm going to go with Chavy. (Rodriguez) said he's ready to help when he needs to help, and let's win today."
Rodriguez, who has had just two hits in 16 at-bats during the series and struck out nine times, came up at a critical juncture on Thursday with men on second and third with one out in the eighth inning, needing just a fly ball to snap a 1-1 tie.
Baltimore's right-handed, side-winding reliever Darren O'Day, however, struck out the once feared slugger and escaped the threat. In the 13th inning, Chavez was sent in to bat for Rodriguez but ended the game with a liner to third.
In Wednesday's Game Three, Girardi sent left-handed hitting Raul Ibanez to bat for Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth with New York trailing 2-1. Ibanez blasted a home run to tie the game then another in the 12th to decide the contest.
Girardi said he consulted with his coaches and team officials before making the decision to bench the 37-year-old Rodriguez.
Chavez batted .281 with 16 homers and 37 RBIs this season, hitting .298 (73-for-245) with all of his home runs coming against right-handed pitching.
Rodriguez, a three-time American League MVP whose 647 career home runs put him fifth on the all-time list, missed about six weeks late in the season after breaking his hand. He hit 18 home runs with 57 RBIs and batted .272 in the regular season.
"I'm not happy about it," Rodriguez told reporters, before adding that he would be ready to contribute if called on during the game.
"Don't assume you've heard the last from us, or me. We're ready to go today. We've got to win a game. I'm part of this team and we're ready to roll, and I'll be ready."
(Editing by Julian Linden)