No doubt, it's good to be A-Rod again

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- It's good to be Alex Rodriguez once again.

Not that it was ever bad, mind you, but it has been especially good this spring, and on Sunday, it was just about as good as it gets.

With his blonde movie star girlfriend sitting front row, stage right, next to the Yankees dugout, A-Rod had his best day of this still-young spring training against the Astros.

On a day in which 38 hits were pounded out, 18 runs were scored and Mother Nature, in various forms, turned what should have been routine fly balls into major problems, no hit was more impressive than the home run Rodriguez belted over the center field fence in the fifth inning.

It not only tied the game at 4 -- the Yankees would go on to win it, 10-8 -- it also brought Cameron Diaz to her feet from the choice box seat she occupied alongside another female friend and the parents of Phil Hughes, all four closely guarded by two burly Yankees security men.

It was a movie star turn by the Yankees' third baseman, enjoying a standing ovation in a visiting ballpark by a woman probably more accustomed to receiving applause than giving it.

And even though a home run was hardly an uncommon occurrence in this laser show of a ballgame -- the Astros hit two off Hughes and Greg Golson added another one for the Yankees -- it was not only A-Rod's first of the spring but possibly the first of many more for the season to come.

He will play back-to-back road games for the first time in anyone's memory, including his own, when half the Yankees travel to Sarasota, Fla., on Monday night to play the Orioles, an indication the Yankees believe their 35-year-old third baseman is healthy enough to do it again.

After five games, his numbers stand at .462, one HR and two RBIs, and of his six hits five have been for extra bases, four of them doubles.

"Throw the stats out the window in spring training," Rodriguez said after being summoned back to the clubhouse, from which he was hurrying to drive away from after leaving the game following the top of the fifth, by a reporter who jokingly asked him, "You got a date?"

The truth was he did, of course.

He has had good springs before; last year, he hit .333 with two homers and 10 RBIs, and in 2009 he hit .429 in a camp that was cut short by the hip surgery that robbed him of the first six weeks of the regular season.

But this spring seems different, in part because Rodriguez dropped 10 pounds and looks as well-conditioned as he did back in his MVP season of 2007 and in part because he said for the first time since before the hip surgery, he feels like his old self again.

Whatever it is, Joe Girardi has noticed it, too. "He has seemed locked in from Day One," the manager said. "He's a pretty good player and this offseason he worked extremely hard. That's all I can tell you."

Rodriguez attributes his early success to getting clearance from his hip surgeon, Dr. Marc Phillipon, to resume his regular workout schedule and to batting practice sessions with hitting coach Kevin Long in Miami over the winter.

"I think overall just Kevin being down in Miami two or three times, a continuation of what we started in November, has helped," Rodriguez said. "We have a good game plan in place. I feel stronger, more flexible. I think overall my work has been pretty good."

There's no disputing that over the last three seasons Rodriguez has been a good, productive player, but he has not been A-Rod. Consecutive seasons of 35, 30 and 30 home runs are numbers Nick Swisher would be proud of, but they pale alongside the best of pre-surgery Rodriguez.

And although his team-leading 125 RBIs in 2010 was a respectable number, his .217 batting average and home runs versus lefties last season were inexplicable and perplexing.

"I wish I had an explanation for that, but I don't," Rodriguez said. "It's something I have to work on."

The Yankees led all of baseball in runs scored last year and were third in the league in home runs, even with a subpar A-Rod. This year, Girardi and Long have said it is "not unreasonable" to expect a 40-home run season from their cleanup hitter, a number Rodriguez has not reached since '07, when he hit 54.

"I'm not concerned with my numbers," Rodriguez said. But the Yankees are, and so far the numbers are good.

NOTES: Hughes, who pitched well in his first outing last week, got shelled Sunday for three runs on five hits -- two home runs, three doubles and one a routine fly ball that Andruw Jones lost in the sun -- in three innings. Encouraged to use his changeup more, Hughes threw one to Jason Michaels in the second inning, only to see it rocketed over the left-field fence. "After that, I didn't want to throw another one," said Hughes, who didn't. Generally, he uses the changeup against left-handed hitters, of which there were none in the Astros' starting lineup. ... The Yankees had 21 hits, two by seven different players, including Derek Jeter, who lined the first pitch he saw into center for a single and hit a sharp grounder over second base two innings later. Jeter's spring batting average is .357. ... Colin Curtis suffered what the Yankees are calling a "jammed" right shoulder after landing awkwardly making a diving catch to end the fifth inning. Curtis had to have his socks put on for him by a clubbie and left the ballpark with his arm in a sling. He was to be examined by a doctor Sunday night at Steinbrenner Field. ... Russell Martin, who was seen icing his knee before the game, said he felt fine and will catch Monday night's game in Sarasota. ... Mariano Rivera threw 32 pitches in a bullpen session this morning at The Boss. He will still need to face hitters in live batting practice before getting into a game, probably next week. ... A.J. Burnett will make his second start of the spring in Monday afternoon's home game against the Phillies, and Sergio Mitre will get his first start in the night game against the Orioles. The starting outfielders -- Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Swisher -- will play the day game, and the Big Four -- A-Rod, Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano -- will travel to Sarasota. YES will televise the day game; no TV or radio for the nightcap.