Turning the corner toward October provided an opportunity to reflect on just how far they'd come. A-Rod drove in four runs and the Yankees got another solid start from CC Sabathia to thump the Orioles on Wednesday, 10-2, completing a series sweep.
"It's a long time, but we've been having a lot of fun," Rodriguez said. "A lot of good things happened since that swing. The team is pitching well and playing good defense, and playing extremely hard. Every game is extremely important for us."
There were a lot of questions surrounding the Yankees' postseason chances on May 8, when Rodriguez reappeared after undergoing right hip surgery during Spring Training and spending more than a month rehabilitating away from the spotlight in Vail, Colo.
The A-Rod who held a lengthy pregame news conference at Camden Yards that day vowed to keep his words to a minimum and let his bat do the talking. The Yankees have been appreciative of both offers, savoring the third baseman's attempts at a lower profile as well as his clutch production.
With Rodriguez in the heart of the lineup, the Yankees have improved from 13-15 without him to a season-best 37 games over .500 at 85-48, having won 10 straight over the Orioles and six in a row overall to increase their lead over the second-place Red Sox to 7 1/2 games.
"He's been the man," Johnny Damon said. "We do have to pay attention and give him those days off so he can feel fresh, and when he feels fresh, you see how fast his swing is. Tonight was great."
With Sabathia overcoming first-inning control problems to settle in and hurl seven innings of one-run ball, becoming the American League's first 16-game winner, Rodriguez delivered both a milestone hit and a big one to help the Bombers before a seven-run ninth inning made it a laugher.
The three-time American League MVP had stroked his 2,500th hit with a single to center off Orioles starter Jason Berken in the fifth inning, then added a go-ahead two-run single in the seventh off Kam Mickolio.
Of Rodriguez's 75 RBIs in 2009, 36 have either tied the game or given the Yankees the lead.
"He has been really good in those situations for us, whether it's been a game-winning home run or tying the score late," manager Joe Girardi said. "He's been really good in those situations, and that's what you want."
Rodriguez was also involved as the Yankees pulled away with their big ninth, sending 12 batters to the plate against the leaky Baltimore 'pen. Hideki Matsui, Melky Cabrera, Jose Molina, Derek Jeter and Damon each logged run-scoring hits in the lengthy frame.
"Give credit where credit is due," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "They have a tremendous team. We try to do everything we possibly can, and it just has not measured up and allowed us to get a win."
Sabathia has his own fond memories of that May 8 start, having been partially overshadowed by A-Rod's power display but hurling a complete-game shutout to log his second win as a Yankee.
Though there was no complete game for him on Wednesday, Sabathia limited the Orioles to one run on seven hits through seven innings and continued his second-half surge to remain undefeated since July 28, a span of seven starts.
"It feels good just being able to go out and help this team win," Sabathia said. "I've just been pounding the strike zone and getting ahead. It has been working out."
With some of the more prominent competition wilting, Sabathia's strong second half may have inserted him into consideration for possible postseason awards.
"I'm just going out and trying to help this team win," he said. "Like I've been saying for a long time, I'd take a World Series trophy over a Cy Young any day. That's what my goal is."
Baltimore touched the left-hander for a first-inning run as Brian Roberts legged out a bunt single, moved to third on a Nolan Reimold hit and scored on Nick Markakis' sacrifice fly.
But that was all they could get off Sabathia, who walked one and struck out nine. He said that early in the game, everything had been up in the zone, but after getting his pitches down, he was able to get ahead and use his changeup for strikeouts.
"He's been really, really good for us all year long," Girardi said. "He's done what we expected. He's been a true ace for us -- innings, wins, everything. He's done everything we've asked."
Eric Hinske tied the game in the third inning with a solo home run to right-center, his seventh roundtripper among just 14 hits since joining the Yankees. Reimold brought the Orioles within one run with a solo home run off Brian Bruney in the eighth.
With Mariano Rivera unavailable after he'd pitched in the first two games of the series and battling tightness in his left groin, Phil Hughes was summoned for a four-out save.
That became a much easier task when his lead bloated from one run to eight after the top of the ninth inning, helping the Yankees improve their big league-best record and pull away even more.
"We're not counting our blessings just yet," Rodriguez said. "We have a long way to go, and there's a lot of baseball to be played. But overall, our health has been good, for the most part, and we have a deep team."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less