- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- By the time the seventh inning rolled around Thursday night, the New York Yankees had already gotten a 390-foot home run into the second deck in left from Mark Teixeira, his 33rd of the year; a 369-foot home run into the lower deck in left from Nick Swisher, his 15th of a season in which he didn't hit his first until Game No. 22; and then the capper, a 434-foot bomb by Andruw Jones that went up so high it saw the curvature of the Earth.
And the one inescapable thought was not, "Do the Yankees really need Alex Rodriguez?'' so much as, "Should they even be allowed to have him?''
I mean, fair is fair, and with a lineup like the one the Yankees put out most nights, well, it's like allowing Manny Pacquiao to go into the ring wearing brass knuckles.
And then you watch Eduardo Nuñez -- who brings plenty of energy to the plate and the basepaths but only agita out to the field -- boot what should have been a double-play grounder and you realize that, yeah, there probably still is a spot on this ballclub for Rodriguez after all.
A-Rod is coming soon to a ballpark near you, perhaps as soon as Saturday at Target Field or maybe as late as Tuesday when the Yankees return home for an eyeblink of a homestand.
The Yankees will welcome him back eagerly -- in fact, they already did Thursday afternoon, when he made his first appearance in their clubhouse since undergoing knee surgery on July 11 in preparation for his return -- but as strange as it may seem, the last place they need him right now is in their lineup.
The Yankees don't always hit the way they hit in Thursday's 8-4 victory over the Minnesota Twins in the opener of a four-game series, with 15 hits including two doubles, a triple and those three monstrous home runs. But lately, they have been hitting that way with alarming regularity.
Since Rodriguez has been away, the Yankees have moved back atop all of Major League Baseball in runs scored, putting up 212 runs, an average of 6.25 per game, in the 34 games A-Rod has missed.
Two of their players, Teixeira and Curtis Granderson, are among the top three home run hitters in the game. Granderson is the MLB leader in RBIs and is way ahead in runs scored.
The nine men they sent out against the Twins had more combined home runs, 122, than 18 other entire teams.
And now they are on the verge of adding a bat that has already produced 626 career home runs, more than all but six other players in baseball history.
"It's gonna be nice,'' manager Joe Girardi said. "That's a big bat we're dropping into our order.''
No one knows precisely when A-Rod will be activated or when he will return to the lineup. It definitely will not be for Friday night's game, and it may not be for Saturday's either. But at some point, he will be back in there, batting cleanup, sandwiched between 33 homers and 91 RBI (so far) just above him and .305-21-86 (Robinson Cano) immediately below. And somewhere in the mix will be Granderson, who a year after his swing makeover has become one of the most feared left-handed hitters in baseball.
Plus, Derek Jeter continues to hit like its 1999 all over again, two more last night to raise his average to a season-high .291 and continue his incredible recent tear in which he has gone 17-for-32 (.531) over his past seven games.
Adding even a diminished Rodriguez to that mix seems like dipping dynamite sticks into a bath of nitroglycerine.
"It's gonna be great,'' said Teixeira, whose two-run shot in the third inning gave CC Sabathia a 3-2 lead he never gave back despite once again having less than his best stuff. "It just makes the lineup so much deeper. If Alex is healthy and doing what we know he can do, we're going to put up more runs and that's just what we expect.''
It is unknown, of course, how much of his previous form Rodriguez can regain this season, or at all, having turned 36 in July and struggling through an injury-plagued season that threatens to be his worst, statistically, in 15 years. With 13 home runs and 52 RBIs, it will take a near-miracle for A-Rod to avoid his first season with fewer than 30 homers and 100 RBIs since he was a 21-year-old Seattle Mariner.
Still, it is safe to assume that he will be better than he was in the first half of the season, when he struggled with a strained right shoulder in June and with the torn meniscus in his right knee that required surgery in July.
Plus, what he adds in the field is not to be discounted. Aside from creating runs at bat, A-Rod can save runs in the field, too, and despite his defensive struggles in his minor league rehab games last week -- he was booed in Scranton for misplaying a foul pop up and booting a grounder -- it is hard to imagine him not gobbling up the grounder that ate up Nuñez in the seventh and led to an unearned run for the Twins.
"Every swing hurt a lot before I went on the DL,'' Rodriguez said. "Now I'm pain-free. Part of the reason that we had this surgery is because it's important for me to come back and hit home runs, drive in runs and get big hits. It's not to slap the ball all over the place. That's just not my game."
It is assumed, of course, that when A-Rod comes back, Girardi will immediately slide him into the cleanup spot in the batting order that has defined him, and by which he has defined himself, for most of the past two decades.
But even Rodriguez seemed to acknowledge that the spot in the batting order will be his more by birthright than by merit.
"We have probably seven or eight guys in this lineup right now that can hit fourth,'' he said. "Guys are swinging the bats extremely well. One thing I've always prided myself in is that I show up to the park and wherever the manager puts me, that's where I'm playing. I don't complain, I just go out and play."
Thursday night, playing without A-Rod, the Yankees benefited from the kind of random happenstance that fans and dreamy-eyed writers like to portray as some kind of cosmic payback when Justin Morneau had an apparent -- to the naked eye, anyway -- two–run homer reversed after a replay revealed it to be clearly foul.
Just like that, two runs came off the board and a load came off the shoulders of Sabathia, who wound up striking out Morneau. And even though he allowed 10 hits for the third time in his past four outings -- he allowed nine in the fourth -- Sabathia battled enough to limit the damage to four runs (three earned) and showed enough movement on his ball to notch nine strikeouts.
He collected his 17th win, but didn't so much earn it as inherit from the fearsome lineup that kept launching baseballs into the gorgeous Minnesota night.
Teixeira belted a 2-0 changeup from starter Brian Duensing in the third. Swisher lined a 1-0 sinker into the same section, but much less impressively, prompting him to term his home run "the scraper,'' implying it took some paint off the back of the wall on the way down.
Then Jones, who started the season nearly comatose but has come on strong since the All-Star break, sent one into low-Earth orbit. It came down, in a fiery re-entry, in the third deck of the left-field stands.
"I can't even hit a 3-wood that far,'' Swisher said.
Jones, in fact, nearly had two others, flying out to the center-field wall, 411 feet from home plate, in the second and crushing a ball nearly through the window of the Twins' executive offices at the same level as his third-deck HR, but about 10 feet foul.
"That guy has got unbelievable power,'' said Teixeira, who is something of an authority on the subject.
It is on nights like this that it is not so hard to believe that the Yankees, considered no better than second-best in the AL East by many before the season started, remain ahead of the Boston Red Sox with just 40 games remaining.
And now, the Yankees are about to add a third. A guy named Alex, with sure hands and, in the past anyway, a great big bat.
"It definitely improves our team,'' Girardi said.
A-Rod's return will make the Yankees' offense even more potent.