Amid all the chatter about his steroid use, hip injury, Madonna and big-money contract, one thing about Alex Rodriguez is indisputable: his ability to play the game of baseball at the absolute highest level.
Rodriguez trumpeted his return to the Yankees by hitting a three-run homer on the first pitch of his late-starting season, CC Sabathia pitched a four-hitter and New York ended a five-game losing streak by defeating the Baltimore Orioles 4-0 Friday night.
"It was awesome," Rodriguez said. "It was just nice to get to the ballpark, give the guys a hug and do what I do best."
Tormented by stories of involvement with steroids and slowed by hip surgery that forced him to begin the season on the disabled list, Rodriguez finally turned his attention toward playing baseball when he stepped to the plate in the first inning against Jeremy Guthrie (2-3).
As a dozen fans waved plastic foam syringes a few rows behind the plate, A-Rod stepped into a fastball and sent it soaring into the left-field seats. It was his 554th career home run, and for sheer theater, it just might have been in the Top 10.
"What a hitter. What a player," Guthrie said. "To come off the DL like that, I throw that fastball on the black inside, and he just takes it for a home run. ... It's a real special at-bat for him. He stepped up in the big moment right there, center stage, and does what he does best."
After taking a stroll around the bases, Rodriguez was mobbed in the New York dugout.
"I feel like I'm back with my family," he said.
The shot sure came at the right time for the Yankees, whose five-game skid was their longest under second-year manager Joe Girardi. During that losing streak, New York went 6 for 43 with runners in scoring position.
"I think you're always hoping that every time he comes up he hits a home run. You know, that's the impact he has," Girardi said. "Your concern when a guy first comes back is his timing, but he was ready for it."
Rodriguez struck out in the third and fifth innings against Guthrie, then grounded out against Bob McCrory in the seventh to finish 1 for 4. But that one hit was a doozy; while A-Rod was gone, New York third basemen hit a combined .202 with no homers and 10 RBIs over 28 games.
Rodriguez's home run was all the support the Yankees needed for Sabathia (2-3), who stopped a run of four starts without a victory. It was by far his finest performance since signing a $181 million, seven-year contract with New York during the offseason.
Afterward, however, Sabathia spoke with awe about Rodriguez's return.
"He's the best player in the game, so you kind of expect it out of him," the left-hander said. "He hadn't seen a pitch all year and to come up, first pitch, Guthrie's throwing hard and to go deep — it's unbelievable, but it's not surprising."
Sabathia was pretty impressive, too. The husky left-hander allowed singles to the first two batters he faced, then retired 23 of the next 24 batters — the exception a third-inning walk to Brian Roberts — leading up to the ninth.
Cesar Izturis and Roberts opened the ninth with singles before Sabathia got three straight outs to end it.
Sabathia struck out eight, walked one and gained a measure of revenge for an opening-day loss to Baltimore, when he gave up six runs and eight hits in 4 1-3 innings.
"Gosh darn, the guy was exceptional," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "One run would have done it for him."
Guthrie also settled down after the first, when he walked Johnny Damon and Mark Teixeira before yielding the home run to Rodriguez. Over the next five innings, New York failed to score and got only one runner past second base.
After Guthrie departed, Damon hit an RBI double off McCrory in the seventh for a 4-0 lead.
Early in the game, it appeared Rodriguez's homer might not be enough offense to carry the Yankees. In the Baltimore first, singles by Roberts and Adam Jones put runners at first and second. Both took off on a double steal, and Jones was called out at second — although replays indicated he beat the tag.