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04/07/07 7:00 PM ET

A-Rod rescues Yanks

Rodriguez cracks dramatic grand slam in ninth for win

NEW YORK -- Alex Rodriguez jokes that one way or another, he always seems to wind up in the middle of something.

He didn't seem to mind on Saturday, grinning from the center of a pile at home plate, his Yankees teammates alternating between slapping his head, offering high-fives or embracing the third baseman's body in appreciative hugs.

Rodriguez hit a game-winning grand slam off Chris Ray in the bottom of the ninth inning to sink the Baltimore Orioles, 10-7, and set off a raucous celebration at Yankee Stadium.

"It felt awesome," Rodriguez said. "I was so excited, I felt like a fool running around the bases, like it was Little League. I just remember I almost knocked [coach Larry] Bowa over at third. I saw the fans rocking behind him. That was kind of cool."

The grand slam -- Rodriguez's second home run of the game -- capped a Yankees' rally against the Orioles, bailing out starter Kei Igawa, who surrendered seven runs in a five-inning Major League debut.

Trailing by a run as they headed to the bottom of the ninth, Rodriguez said that he somehow knew the game was going to come down to him.

"You relish it," Rodriguez said. "As an athlete, you always want to be in that opportunity."

Trying to preserve a victory for Orioles starter Steve Trachsel, Ray retired the first two batters in the inning before Robinson Cano rapped a single up the middle and Derek Jeter walked, representing the winning run.

Bobby Abreu was then hit by a pitch on the left knee, hobbling the Yankees' right fielder as he limped down to first base. That set the ultimate stage for A-Rod, the one that plays out in the minds of sandlot players everywhere -- bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the ninth.

So much of Rodriguez's tenure has been mercurial, even boiled down to Opening Day. On Monday, Yankees fans needed just six minutes to boo him for a dropped foul popup, then cheered him as he came back later that afternoon with a home run.

The Yankees watch and wonder when the big moment is coming, the landmark occurrence that puts an end to these types of hot-and-cold receptions. As Torre said, "You'd have to be in that dugout to appreciate how much people pull for him."

Ray worked the count to a ball and two strikes against Rodriguez before a fastball rode up on Rodriguez. The Orioles' right-hander instinctively leapt as Rodriguez triggered a swing, as if to acknowledge his mistake and cry out for a do-over, but it was too late.

Rodriguez ripped the offering into the black seats beyond center field, with the ball making a jagged bounce up and to the left before being retrieved and landing in its ultimate destination -- a center shelf in Rodriguez's locker.

Rodriguez jumped as he approached home plate, discarding his helmet and sending it spinning toward Baltimore's third-base dugout, accepting a pounding at the hands of his teammates. He called it "one of the best moments for me" as a Yankee.

As Rodriguez made his way to the first-base dugout, Torre placed his left hand on A-Rod's cap, ruffling his hair underneath the polyester covering.

Torre has been steadfast in his belief that too much attention is paid to A-Rod -- in the stands, in the newspapers, on 24-hour sports radio -- but he probably won't have concerns with what could be said after Rodriguez's Saturday in the park.

"It's one of those things when you get to a point," Torre said. "When do you have to stop proving yourself? I think that's what it's all about. When you set the bar as high as his is set, people sort of expect it all the time.

"This game has helped him. It's an important game, but it wasn't a game where the home run didn't mean anything. It was a huge lift for everybody. That's sort of a plateau -- people say [that] with men on base, he can't do this or can't do that. Well, there it is. Let's shut the book on that one and wait for the next chapter."

As a postscript, what remained of a Saturday afternoon crowd that endured Igawa's shaky opening cried out for their just rewards -- a Rodriguez curtain call.

It was an unlikely candidate who eventually alerted Rodriguez to their clamors, making contact with the third baseman's lower back and gently shoving him up the dugout steps to accept the crowd's warm embrace.

"I'm happy for him, that he came through," Jeter said. "That was a big hit for us. We needed that. We didn't want to waste another game."

Rodriguez said he appreciated the curtain call and the continuing applause and roars from the fans, which followed the Yankees as they made their way down the tunnel, satisfied with a win in the season's fourth game that some players had even gone so far as to call "urgent."

"That felt really good," Rodriguez said. "They've been wanting to explode for three days. It was rocking right then."

Even through the tumult that seems to trail Rodriguez's every comment and mannerism, the All-Star maintains that he feels at peace; he has since reporting to Legends Field in Tampa, Fla.

Maybe it was uncovering the state of his friendship with Jeter, maybe it's because he claims to no longer over-analyze every single comment made about him in the mainstream media, or maybe it was just his due time.

Torre scoffs when players claim they don't hear the boos and cheers; they're described as ever-present, even if the best players can tune them out and work past the distractions.

Either way, Rodriguez walked off Saturday as a winner. No one would dare say otherwise.

"He's such a big part of this club," Torre said. "He sits in the middle of our lineup and the expectations are high. It's really tough for him to live up to them. Today, he did."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.