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With bat and glove, A-Rod can still contribute

Yankees' win over Tigers brings countless examples of third baseman's ability

NEW YORK -- To the often-asked question: "How much can Alex Rodriguez possibly have left?" The Yankees win on Sunday -- a 5-4 walk-off -- provided this inescapable answer:

Well, he has enough left to get two straight RBI hits off Justin Verlander, one of which was a home run.

A-Rod was making his second appearance of the season at Yankee Stadium. The debut on Friday night was inauspicious, to say the least. Rodriguez was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. He is, of course, facing a 211-game suspension for violations of Major League Baseball's drug policy, playing while that suspension is under appeal.

Sunday was completely different. On the mound for the Tigers -- winners of 13 out of their last 14 games -- was Verlander, who just two seasons ago was the American League Cy Young Award winner and was, without question, the best starting pitcher on the planet.

This season, Verlander has been much closer to mortal -- equipped with outstanding stuff, but missing the consistent, precision command that he featured two years ago. But he is still having the sort of season that would be happily taken by most Major League pitchers and all of their agents.

Rodriguez, leading off the second inning, got from Verlander a belt-high, 92-mph fastball over the inner half of the plate, and did what he was supposed to do with it, driving it over the left-field fence.

"It felt good to get that first one out of the way," Rodriguez said. "All great pitchers have one thing in common: they attack you, they throw strikes.

"It's still a work in progress. I should get better, hopefully, every day. Today was a step in the right direction."

That tied the game at 1. In the third, with Robinson Cano at second and two outs, Verlander, who had been throwing primarily in the low 90s, started Rodriguez out with a 98-mph fastball for a called strike. After three sliders, Verlander came back with another fastball at 98. Rodriguez grounded it sharply inside the first-base line for a run-scoring single.

Rodriguez did not immediately run toward first.

"I actually thought I fouled it up to the upper deck," Rodriguez said with a small smile. "It's been a long time. I'm trying to get my feet wet out there."

The Yankees went on to win, thus taking two of three from the Tigers. They witnessed the unthinkable -- Mariano Rivera blowing a third straight save opportunity -- but the Bombers prevailed on Brett Gardner's walk-off home run.

On the plus side continually in this one, was A-Rod. As much as he demonstrated that he could hit one of baseball's toughest pitchers, after recovering from a second hip surgery, he showed the necessary movement and reflexes at third base.

He made three nice plays and one remarkable play. With one on and nobody out, the Yanks up, 4-2, Austin Jackson hit a ball down the third-base line. Rodriguez made a backhanded stop, and his momentum carried him into foul territory. But he turned and made a quick, accurate throw to second to get the force on Jose Iglesias -- or at least get the out call from second-base umpire Will Little.

It was an extremely close play at second, and Tigers manager Jim Leyland argued vehemently about the call. But Rodriguez had made a substantial play.

Rodriguez also flubbed a routine grounder in the third for an error, but no damage was done on the scoreboard.

"Today was a good day all around, I felt pretty good," Rodriguez said. "I had a couple days like this, but in Trenton and Scranton, they don't count as much."

"I think he's moving as well as he did before the surgery," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He made an impressive play there, going to his right."

Making an overall assessment of A-Rod's play, Girardi said: "Two big RBIs and a huge [defensive] play in that eighth inning, as well. You know I told you that I thought he was pretty explosive. I wasn't sure what we were going to get when he came back, but I felt pretty good about it.

"I think it's unfair to expect him to be in midseason form. I mean, our hope is that he is in midseason form. But you're never sure when a guy comes off the [disabled list] and he's been there for a long time. But today, it was a great day for him."

The home run gave A-Rod the 1,951st RBI of his career. That moved him past Stan Musial into fifth place on the all-time RBI list.

What did that mean to him?

"It means I'm getting old," Rodriguez said with a smile.

That answer provoked no response from his audience. So he tried again and did better on the second attempt.

"When you think about names like that, it's obviously so humbling. It makes you think you've been around a long time," he said. "But those are things you can reflect [on] years after you're done playing."

There will be people who, because of Rodriguez's acknowledged past history with performance-enhancing drugs, are going to resent his name being mentioned in the same paragraph with that of Stan the Man. That response is not going to evaporate.

But Sunday, on a baseball-right-now level, the Yankees saw what they needed to see: an A-Rod who was still capable of helping them win a baseball game against difficult competition.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
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