In terms of baseball results, Alex Rodriguez had the most productive showing since his return. In the end, it still was almost not enough for the Yankees.
Miguel Cabrera continued his onslaught against Yankee pitching by hitting a home run in his third straight game — and second in three days off Mariano Rivera — in the ninth inning as Rivera blew a third straight save for the first time in his career.
However, Rodriguez’s day ended with him catching Brett Gardner’s helmet in the wild celebration after the center fielder’s solo home run with two outs in the ninth gave the Yankees a 5-4 victory over the Tigers Sunday.
“It’s a work in progress,” Rodriguez said of his best day out of the five games he has played so far. “Hopefully it’s a step in the right direction.”
So while the Yankees will occasionally get glimpses of Rodriguez’s bat exploding against fastballs like they did on his solo home run in the second inning against power right-hander Justin Verlander, they can be reminded that they could have acquired Cabrera after the 2007 season.
“His bat stays in the strike zone a long time and he’s smart,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said of Cabrera. “He also knows when people are trying to pound him in. He opens up a little bit, [and] pulls his hands in to hit it out to left. He’s just a great hitter.”
That is the same offseason that Rodriguez opted out of his initial 10-year contract signed with Texas following the 2000 season. The Yankees agreed to re-sign Rodriguez to a contract that will take him to 42 years old, a week after Cabrera was traded by the Marlins to the Tigers.
Sunday, however, was about the results on the field, a topic Rodriguez prefers to discuss.
“It felt good to get that first one out of the way,” Rodriguez said.
Booed by a majority of the crowd in pregame introductions and when he walked to the plate for at-bats, Rodriguez managed to get some to convert their feelings with his most positive baseball results since returning from a second hip surgery a week ago in Chicago.
“I think the fans have been good,” Rodriguez said. “You want to turn boos into cheers.”
In his first at-bat, he led off the second inning with a home run into the left field seats on a 1-0 92 mph fastball by Verlander. That led many to give him somewhat of an ovation for hitting his 647th home run.
The reaction was similar when he came up with two outs in the third and with Robinson Cano on base. Again he heard some cheers when he punched a full count 98 mph fastball into right field for an RBI, though the third baseman did not initially seem to know he had a hit.
“It was great,” Gardner said of Rodriguez’s day. “He’s looked good since he came back.”
Those hits created as much of a sense of normalcy for the embattled slugger, so much that when he strode to the plate for his third at-bat, cheers were louder than boos and there was little reaction when the at-bat ended the fifth on one pitch.
The Rodriguez controversy overshadowed the difficulty the Yankees have had winning games.
But they won their first series since taking two of three from Baltimore July 5-7, a series they were minutes away from sweeping. Since Adam Jones homered off Rivera, the Yankees had tumbled six games in the AL East, going from five out to 11 out by virtue of an 11-19 record in their last 30 games.
But when Gardner’s home run landed in the second deck beyond right field, things were slightly better for everyone on the team.
“That's the first time I've ever hit a walk-off home run,” Gardner said. “It might be the last. I've had a couple of seeing-eye singles up the middle and through the left side but never a home run like that.”
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.