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Alex Rodriguez looks ready to contribute down the stretch

Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees hits

Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees hits a solo home run against the Baltimore Orioles in the fifth inning at Yankee Stadium on September 7, 2015. Credit: Getty Images

The temperature said dog days but the shadows suggested autumn when Alex Rodriguez strode to the plate at Yankee Stadium for his final at-bat on the unofficial final day of summer.

Blocking some of the sunlight between him and the mound were flags representing the Major League Baseball standings fluttering in the warm breeze.

Poetic, right? Well, the setting was, anyway.

Rodriguez grounded out in the eighth inning to finish a 1-for-5 day Monday as the Yankees beat the Orioles, 8-6, to move within a half-game of the AL East-leading Blue Jays.

But it was what came earlier, back in the fifth, that signaled that Rodriguez might just continue to shine as the shadows grow even longer in the coming weeks.

With the Yankees trailing 4-2, he drove a 3-and-1 pitch from Wei-Yin Chen over the leftfield wall to jump-start what became a three-run inning when John Ryan Murphy added a two-run shot four batters later.

Greg Bird's three-run homer in the seventh broke a 5-5 tie to win it for the Yankees, whose three home runs were hit by men of the following ages: 40, 24, 22.

Only one of those players raised widespread and justifiable concerns in August that he might be wearing down amid the long grind. But so far, so good in September.

Rodriguez has hit three home runs in his past four games after totaling two in his previous 31 games, a span in which he hit .194.

His batting average has not recovered from the swoon -- it is .256 now -- but the power that wowed all of baseball early this season seems to be back. For a team that lives and dies by the home run, that is a welcome development.

Joe Girardi said after the game that he never left A-Rod for dead in baseball terms even as many of the rest of us did.

"We knew that there might be some challenges because he's 40 years old,'' the manager said. "He hasn't played a full season in a couple of years. He's pretty much almost played every day for us except when we've been in National League ballparks.

"As I said, I thought the three days [without a start] in Atlanta [Aug. 28-30] helped and I noticed his swing was better in Boston [Aug. 31-Sept. 2], and it's just continued. We need to keep him going, though. That's the big thing. He's a big part of our lineup.''

Girardi said before the game that Rodriguez likely will need games off down the stretch, although not necessarily multiple games consecutively. He noted that when the Yankees face the Mets at DH-free Citi Field Sept. 18-20, after an off day Sept. 17, A-Rod likely will get an extended break.

Whatever Girardi decides, there seems little chance Rodriguez will complain about it publicly, in keeping with his season-long best-behavior mode. (He did not speak to reporters before or after Monday's game.)

Brett Gardner, who took the day off to rest assorted undisclosed aches and pains, said he was not concerned about Rodriguez overcoming an extended slump that for a time looked as if it might be the beginning of the end.

"When you see Alex at his best, it's hard to believe someone who's that good can struggle for an extended period of time, but everybody does it; everybody goes through it,'' he said.

"What he does and what he's been doing, I'm obviously very happy to see it, but I'm not surprised by it.''

Rodriguez's homer was his 3,054th hit, surpassing Rod Carew -- who played youth baseball on the site of the current Stadium -- for sole possession of 23rd place on the all-time list. One more home run will give him 30, tying Hank Aaron for the most 30-homer seasons in major-league history at 15.

"I think Alex is still going to be able to hit a baseball in five, 10, 20 years down the road,'' Gardner said.

For now, the Yankees would settle for two more months down the road.

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