While the New York bats sat silent through the first five innings, starter Phil Hughes built up a pitch count of 89 through four innings to make an earlier exit than he would have liked.
But when the Yankees turned to their bullpen with a one-run deficit, the relievers came through, delivering five shutout innings to keep the score close. And the offense came alive to back them up as the Bombers rallied in the late innings for a 5-1 comeback victory over the White Sox (84-67) on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium. As the lineup cycled through, bats started connecting, and the hits came together.
"The third time through is a little bit different," manager Joe Girardi said.
New York managed just one hit and two baserunners through the first five innings against White Sox starter Clayton Richard. The Yankees struck out three times and grounded into two double plays during that stretch.
But during Xavier Nady's third trip to the plate, he smacked a line drive to center field, bringing home Alex Rodriguez to draw even with the White Sox at 1. When Robinson Cano doubled in the following at-bat, Richard (2-5) left the game, and the Yankees took advantage of the Chicago bullpen.
"He was doing some funky things with the ball, and we couldn't really figure him out," Johnny Damon said of Richard. "But as soon as we could get him out of the ballgame, things started looking brighter for us."
Nady scored the go-ahead run when he sprinted across the plate as reliever Mike MacDougal threw a wild pitch. Two eighth-inning home runs from Damon and Rodriguez gave the Yankees (81-71) a cushion and sealed the win.
The possibility of a comeback came from solid performances from the New York pitching staff that kept the score close. Though his pitch count ballooned to send Hughes to an early exit after just four innings, he held the Chicago offense to just one run on four hits.
The 11-pitch at-bat that kicked off the night proved to be telling for Hughes. Orlando Cabrera worked the right-hander and fouled off seven pitches before he connected for a double. When the opening frame closed, Hughes had piled up 33 throws, but when he needed to get an out, he did.
"I saw a guy that was in trouble, but made pitches when he had to," Girardi said. "That's the good thing. That's the positive part of the night."
In his first Major League appearance since April 29, Hughes said he felt a few jitters, but he was excited to be back on the mound. He mixed his pitches, adding a cutter to his arsenal of fastball, curveball and changeup. And despite the high pitch count, he felt that his fastball command had improved.
"It wasn't necessarily a matter of me falling behind a lot, it was just guys fouling off good pitches, and sometimes that's going to happen," Hughes said. "It seemed like they had runners in scoring position a lot, and when you get out of those innings with a leadoff double and only scoring that one run or they had a couple guys on, it was good to keep the guys in the ballgame."
When lefty Phil Coke took over in the fifth, he continued his success out of the bullpen. He retired six straight batters, posting two shutout innings to extend his streak of scoreless big league appearances to seven.
And while the Yankees' relievers held off the Chicago lineup, the New York offense came alive to back them up. Cano went 3-for-3, and the two late homers put the Bombers out of Chicago's reach. And as Rodriguez went deep over the right-field wall for his 35th home run of the season, he became the third Yankee to reach a milestone during the homestand.
It marked his 12th career season of at least 35 home runs, tying Babe Ruth, and he has hit 35 or more homers in 11 consecutive seasons, passing Sammy Sosa for the all-time mark.
"He's a big offensive player, year in and year out," Girardi said. "He keeps himself in unbelievable shape and he's able to drive the ball out of the ballpark the other way. Not a lot of guys can do that. What he's done over his career is amazing, and he's still got a long way to go."
For Rodriguez, who has become accustomed to boos because of his recent struggles at the plate, he said it just felt good to put the ball in play.
But while individual Yankees continue to set records, and the team has taken four of the first six games in its final homestand at Yankee Stadium, some can't help but wonder what might have been if the club had performed this way throughout the season.
"If we could have been playing this well all year, we'd still be in this thing," Damon said. "But we didn't, and this is what we have to do now is go out there and play as well as we can, and hopefully we can finish out Yankee Stadium on a positive."
Samantha Newman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.