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08/01/10 4:00 PM ET

A-Rod pinch-hits late, but strikes out

Yankees slugger caught looking for Shields' 10th strikeout

ST. PETERSBURG -- The milestone will have to wait for another day.

Alex Rodriguez stands on the verge of becoming the seventh player in Major League history to hit 600 home runs, but he didn't enter Sunday's 3-0 Yankees loss to the Rays until the seventh inning in place of Austin Kearns, striking out looking against James Shields to end the frame.

"He's played 13 days in a row -- we've got to make sure that we keep him healthy and strong," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said before the game.

After Sunday, the Yankees' next game is on Monday night at 7:05 ET in the Bronx against the Toronto Blue Jays, who will start Brandon Morrow. In his career against the right-hander, Rodriguez has hit .267 (4-for-15) with one home run and two walks.

A break might be the tonic to help Rodriguez reinvigorate his stalled chase. Including his strikeout on Sunday, Rodriguez has gone 38 at-bats and 43 plate appearances since clubbing No. 599 off the Royals' Robinson Tejeda on July 22 at Yankee Stadium -- longer than any of his six predecessors needed to make the jump to the 600-homer club.

"The way I'm swinging now, it's probably going to take a while -- everybody get comfortable," Rodriguez said after Saturday night's 5-4 win, in which he went 0-for-3 with a walk. "I'm just glad to be out there, helping the team somehow. I scored a run.

"People are asking me about home runs. I'm asking for a hit-by-pitch, infield hit, bunt single, error. I'll get on base anyhow. The home run will come."

The Yankees started Ramiro Pena at third base on Sunday, with new acquisition Lance Berkman slated to play first base. Mark Teixeira was penciled in as the designated hitter.

Girardi said that he had decided Rodriguez would probably get a day off on Saturday, and the manager text messaged the third baseman on Sunday to inform him. The original plan was to have A-Rod serve as the DH on Saturday, but New York's acquisition of Berkman from the Houston Astros shook up those plans.

The Yankees are also mindful of the state of Rodriguez's right hip, which was impacted by playing three straight days on artificial turf in June.

With the Yankees playing the Rays, their closest competitor in the American League East, Girardi said he had to slightly wrestle with the decision to bench Rodriguez.

"It is a tough decision, but it's not Sept. 25," Girardi said. "We have 59 games left, and if I run him out there and he gets hurt today, people are going to say, 'Why'd you play him 14 days in a row?' We just have to be smart about it."

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