- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- One can only imagine the thoughts running through Alex Rodriguez's head as he looked over into the Yankees dugout just a few steps into his home run trot:
Had the ball been caught? Did it hook foul at the last moment? Were all the scurrilous rumors true? Did his teammates really all hate him?
After all, he had just hit a walk-off home run -- or so he thought -- and nobody was vaulting over the dugout rail to mob him or reaching for a pie to smash into his face.
"I thought I hit a much bigger home run than I actually hit,'' Rodriguez said. "I looked over at A.J. [Burnett] and [Andy] Pettitte in the dugout and they weren't moving. That's when I kinda started to figure we had one more half-inning to play. It was pretty embarrassing.''
Nothing of the sort, of course. A game-winning home run in the bottom of the eighth inning is every bit as big, if not quite as exciting, as one hit in the bottom of the ninth, and the effect is exactly the same.
Rodriguez's two-run homer off David Aardsma provided the final margin in Thursday's 4-2 Yankees victory over the Seattle Mariners, a win that saved them from being swept at home by a team that is 11 games under .500 and 14 games behind its division leader.
Now that would have been embarrassing.
What happened with A-Rod was merely amusing, and so what if he didn't know what inning it was? He didn't know what day it was, either.
Uh, wrong. Lee beat the Yankees on Tuesday and Hernandez shut them out Wednesday, which meant A-Rod bailed his team out on Thursday.
"All I know is, I honestly thought it was the ninth inning and we walked off,'' he said. "I was gonna go to the spread and get some food. But when I saw nobody coming out of the dugout, I thought, 'Oh, crap, I better run.'"
Of course, you have to run out a ninth-inning home run, too, before you can hit the clubhouse buffet, but no matter. As manager Joe Girardi said, A-Rod's blast into the right-field seats was "a huge hit for us,'' and not just because it salvaged a game for his team.
It was also big because it indicated to him, and to A-Rod and to hitting coach Kevin Long, that the leader among active major leaguers in career home runs -- that was No. 595 for Rodriguez -- might finally be on the road to becoming a home run hitter again. And that, in turn, might help the erratic Yankees offense return to the level it was expected to play at when this $200-million-plus roster was assembled.
"We've had stretches, but I don't think we've clicked on all cylinders, I will say that,'' Long said. "I wouldn't say we've under-underachieved, but there's more in there, for sure.''
Even with Thursday's dramatic victory -- the drama made necessary when CC Sabathia, having thrown seven scoreless innings, allowed Seattle to tie the game with the help of a passed ball by Jorge Posada that set up Russell Branyan's two-run, game-tying single -- the Yankees offense has been anemic since returning home from the West Coast, scoring all of eight runs in 27 innings and managing just 17 hits over three games.
All right, so Lee and Hernandez are two of the league's best starters, but Thursday, the Mariners threw Ryan Rowland-Smith, who came in with a 6.18 ERA. And aside from a Mark Teixeira RBI groundout in the first and Robby Cano's solo homer in the fourth, the Yankees couldn't do anything against him.
It took Rodriguez batting against Aardsma, a righty with a 95 mph fastball, to avoid the inconvenience of extra innings and the possible indignity of a sweep.
"We haven't been swinging the bats the way we would like to,'' said Rodriguez, echoing a theme we have heard far too often this season, which is now 78 games old. "I think we've been definitely carried by our starting pitching. Our offense, we just been kinda here and there. We haven't been consistent all year. I feel there's a lot of room for improvement.''
Indeed. Aside from Cano, who continues to lead the league in hitting at .353 and the team in home runs with 16, none of the Yankees' regulars have been able to sustain any kind of a hot streak.
Derek Jeter has been up and down all year, hasn't had an RBI in 14 games -- the longest stretch of his career -- and, more disturbingly, is 0-for-his last 13 with runners in scoring position, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, a most un-Captain Clutch-like clip.
Teixeira had two hits Thursday to extend his hitting streak to 12 games and appears to be showing signs of coming out of his season-long funk, but he has displayed these signs before only to slip back. His average remains mired at .234.
But rarely have more than two or three of them been good at the same time. Although the Yankees are second only to the Red Sox in the league in runs scored, they have scored four runs or fewer in 16 of the past 23 games, and they have been shut out twice in the past 12 days.
"We've sputtered a little bit,'' A-Rod said.
Part of the reason has been Rodriguez's curious power shortage for the first two months of the season, a stretch that coincided with his missing four games with a strained right hip flexor. Now, with four home runs over the past eight games, he, too, is showing signs of coming out of it.
"It was concerning,'' Long said. "You just want to make sure he's healthy, but he's been explosive lately. Whenever he goes to the opposite field, that's a good sign for him.''
Rodriguez's home run Thursday went into the right-field seats, an indication, he said, that the work he and Long have been doing to get him to hit the ball either straightaway or to the opposite field has been working.
"I think some of it is being healthy, and a lot of it is the work K. Long and I have been doing on my posture and minimizing my movement up there,'' he said. "But I am getting healthy and I'm feeling much better.''
As he moves closer to 600 career home runs, a plateau reached by only six other players, you have to wonder if the number will begin to wear on Rodriguez, the way 500 did back in 2007.
"It took me like two months to get to 500,'' he said, but in reality, it only seemed that way. Ten days, eight games and 27 at-bats passed between home runs number 499 and 500. The Yankees can only hope there won't be nearly so wide a gap between 599 and 600.
"It won't cause me to press, but I will embrace it though,'' A-Rod said. "You look at 600 and it's hard to just ignore it.''
And you can bet his teammates will climb out of the dugout to greet him, no matter in what inning he hits it.