The Yankees' rally started when sparkplug Brett Gardner -- playing in place of Damon -- legged out a triple off Twins closer Joe Nathan despite falling as he rounded first base. Mark Teixeira followed with an RBI single to snap New York's 0-for-7 stretch with runners in scoring position, and Rodriguez worked his fourth walk to put the go-ahead run on base. A strikeout by Hideki Matsui and Nick Swisher's groundout gave way to an intentional walk to Robinson Cano and a dramatic backdrop for Cabrera.
"I felt good about that situation," manager Joe Girardi said. "He's been swinging the bat great for us since we inserted him in the lineup."
The same could be said for Gardner, who entered the game to play center field in the fourth inning after the Yankees shifted Cabrera to cover for Damon in left.
Following a fifth-inning single, the speedy Gardner lined a pitch from reliever Jesse Crain deep into the left-field corner and motored his way to an inside-the-park home run. It was the first inside-the-parker by a Yankee since Ricky Ledee accomplished the feat on Aug. 29, 1999.
"He got three hits, three big hits, and he ignited us with a lot of energy," said Rodriguez. "Gardy has a lot of ability, and I think he's going to get going here."
The struggling Teixeira seemed to feed off Gardner's energy, and twice followed the young outfielder with a hit of his own. Teixeira finished 2-for-4 with an RBI and a run scored, and Derek Jeter hit a solo homer in the fifth to put the Yankees on the board.
"We've been saying for the last couple of weeks that we haven't been playing our best baseball," Gardner said. "We've been saying that it's early, we still have time. But every day that goes by and we don't win a ballgame, that's a missed opportunity for us to battle back.
"For us to come out and win the first game of the series is very important."
And to do it with guys like Gardner and Cabrera in starring roles might be even more important.
"The fact that I had a chance to be in the position to help the team, I really felt good," Cabrera said. "[The fans chanting] helped my confidence, and I was just ready to do what I had to do."
And for Girardi, not getting out to the field quick enough to defend Damon may have been a blessing in disguise.
"Sure seemed that way, didn't it?" he said. "It worked out. That's what players need to do when you get your opportunity to play, you contribute. And that's what Gardy did."
Starter Phil Hughes gave the Yankees a chance to win, holding the Twins to three runs on six hits over five innings. The young right-hander worked his way out of some tough jams, but a high pitch count, driven by four walks and a pair of homers by Justin Morneau, forced an early exit.
The only real blemish on Friday night came in the top of the eighth inning, when Teixeira exchanged some heated words with Twins center fielder Carlos Gomez. Fortunately, the skirmish was cleared up quickly and all was forgotten less than 20 minutes later, as the Yankees' bench cleared to mob Cabrera with childlike glee.
"I just think we have a ballclub that's never going to give up," Gardner said. "We never give up, whether we're down one or we're down six going into the ninth."