Alex Rodriguez warms up for his rehab start with the...

Alex Rodriguez warms up for his rehab start with the Tampa Yankees in a minor-league game against the Lakeland Flying Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium. (Aug. 31, 2012) Credit: AP

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Alex Rodriguez played for the first time in more than a month Friday night, taking a step toward returning to the Yankees with a hitless rehab game in the Florida State League.

"It's my first day. I'm taking it one day at a time,'' Rodriguez said after going 0-for-3 with a walk and a run scored. "It felt so good to be back in the box. There's no question I'm champing at the bit to get back and help the boys out.''

Rodriguez, who hadn't played since being hit in the left hand by the Mariners' Felix Hernandez on July 24, led off the game as the Tampa Yankees' designated hitter. He grounded to shortstop on a full count in the first inning, then drew a full-count walk in the fourth and later scored. He struck out looking to end the inning, then struck out swinging in the seventh.

"I haven't seen a pitch in about five weeks, so I think just some repetition,'' he said of his goals. "I think I saw 24, 25 pitches today, so that's pretty good for one day.''

Rodriguez appeared to be in good spirits, watching much of the game from the top step of the Yankees' dugout and chatting with teammates. Barring surprises, he is expected to play third base in Lakeland on Saturday night, then will be evaluated Sunday. It's possible that he'll then rejoin the Yankees in St. Petersburg, Fla., as they open a three-game series with the Rays.

The Yankees have gone 17-17 in Rodriguez's absence, with their AL East lead dwindling to two games with Friday's loss.

"We're going to be fine,'' he said. "Obviously, there are a lot of good teams in the American League. We've known that. We built ourselves a lead for this reason. I have a good feeling the boys are going to turn it around starting tomorrow.''

Rodriguez's appearance drew a solid crowd to Joker Marchant Stadium, the Tigers' spring training home, which has averaged 998 fans for FSL games but had an announced 2,089 Friday night.

Rodriguez wasn't the only major-leaguer making a rehab appearance in Lakeland. Former Mariners closer David Aardsma, who had Tommy John surgery last year, pitched the first inning for the Yankees, giving up no hits but walking one and throwing a wild pitch. It was Aardsma's first game action since three relief appearances in the Gulf Coast League in June.

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