By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

Editor’s note: A-Rod has since been benched for Game 5. Ouch!

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Two nights ago, Joe Girardi made one of the gutsiest moves of his Yankees managerial career.

He pinch-hit for a future Hall of Famer, assuming past use of steroids doesn’t keep Alex Rodriguez out of Cooperstown. If it does, well, the appraisal still stands, because A-Rod is still a pretty darned good player.

But Wednesday’s pinch-hit decision brings the question of whether or not permanent change is in the offing for the hitting great. By pulling him for 40-year-old Raul Ibanez — a move that, by the way, paid off big as Ibanez came through with a tying homer in the ninth and a winning homer in the 12th — Girardi may have unintentionally signaled the end of Rodriguez as a regular No. 3 hitter.

Or, if this is not the end, perhaps an altered existence as a true power hitter still due $114 million, still in chase of the all-time home run record.

We say this not because of a singular benching, especially in light of the .083 average with which he exited that game. If Rodriguez was managing, he might have taken himself out, he’s going that bad.

It was what happened in Thursday night‘s Game 4, a 2-1 loss in 13 innings. Girardi took that average and placed it in the No. 5 hole. It was the lowest Rodriguez had hit in a postseason lineup since 2006 when Joe Torre dropped him to the No. 8 hole for Game 4 of the ALDS against the Tigers.

You may recall the Yanks lost that series, much because Rodriguez batted all of .071.

See, this is nothing new for Rodriguez. He’s been as up and down as a pogo stick in the postseason. One-eleven last year, .190 the year before that.

Actually, he’s had exactly six career playoff series in the 17 he’s played in since his first in 1995 that can actually be termed good. That‘s .300 or better.

The rest? A whole string of low numbers, interrupted occasionally by mediocre ones.

There was never an issue with his place in the batting order before this year, however. Age may have something to do with it. He’s 37 now, no longer the young guy managers always expected to break out at any moment.

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So he drops two spots in the lineup to a spot he only hit in once this regular season.

Maybe the move was overdue. But the real issue will come in the future.

Will he stay there? Will we see similar movement in the regular season?

If Girardi continues Rodriguez’ mobility below the No. 3 and 4 holes, where he hit in 114 games in the regular season, A-Rod may well be seeing the beginning of the end.

Rodriguez did get a hit in the Yanks’ second straight trip into extra innings Thursday night; a single that produced nothing. Before that at-bat he walked, and in his sixth-inning at-bat, he struck out with Mark Teixeira standing on second.

He struck out for a second time in the eighth, this time with men on second and third and one out.

That made him 0-for-2 with three runners in scoring position.

An 11th-inning groundout ended his night, as Girardi pulled him a second straight game for a pinch-hitter, this time Eric Chavez, with two out in the 13th.

A-Rod is suddenly expendable. And moveable.

Not good.

Rodriguez will see what happens this afternoon in Game 5.

He could look back on this series as the beginning of the end.

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Are A-Rod’s days as a feared slugger officially over? Be heard in the comments below…