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10/10/10 3:15 AM ET

Thames rewarding Yanks for opportunity

Veteran continues strong season with homer in clinching game

NEW YORK -- After each grinding season -- and just before restarting the process of lifting weights, taking batting practice and working toward another campaign in the Major Leagues -- Marcus Thames has a yearly tradition: Watch tape of his first Major League at-bat.

"First day I go in," Thames said, "I'll look at it, get me pumped up and it's time to go to work."

The tape is a short one. It's one pitch long, and it stems from June 10, 2002, when Thames -- then a 25-year-old rookie in his first go-round with the Yankees -- blasted the first pitch from then-D-backs ace Randy Johnson for a home run at the original Yankee Stadium.

Thames has been crushing lefties since.

"It lights a fire in me a little bit, to let me know how hard I've worked to get here," Thames said minutes after the Yankees' 6-1 win over the Twins on Saturday night, which finished off an American League Division Series sweep. "And I want to stay up here. It was a great feeling, and I won't forget about that. But I have something else on my mind right now."

Thames gave a big, fat smirk when he said that. Because less than an hour earlier, his Yankees had advanced to the AL Championship Series, and Thames himself was a big part of the effort.

Thames hit a rare opposite-field two-run homer in the fourth to put his club ahead, 4-0 -- his first postseason homer in 26 career at-bats -- and finished the night 2-for-4.

Thames, who was released by the Tigers in 2009, signed a Minor League deal with the Yankees in the offseason, struggled in Spring Training and made the Opening Day roster only because of his track record against lefties.

He's now in a platoon role at the designated-hitter spot with perennial All-Star Lance Berkman this postseason. And despite Berkman's strong performance against right-hander Carl Pavano in Game 2, Yankees manager Joe Girardi stuck with his original plan and gave Thames the start against a lefty -- Brian Duensing -- in Game 3.

It sure paid off.

"That was my first hit with the Yankees in the postseason, and it was one to give us a little breathing room for a little while," Thames said about his homer. "It felt great. Somebody was on base. Any time I can hit one while we're winning ballgames, it's awesome."

Last offseason, Thames signed with the team that drafted him, and he admitted he was "a little bit too pumped up, because I didn't do anything in Spring Training."

During the spring -- which followed a down year with Detroit in 2009 -- the 33-year-old right-handed power hitter batted just .135 in 52 at-bats and wasn't even sure he'd make the team.

Thames cracked the roster, and he wound up batting .288 with 12 home runs in 82 games despite inconsistent playing time throughout the regular season. In August, when the newly-acquired Berkman was limited to 11 games, Thames helped carry the Yankees with a .344 batting average and seven homers. And with his club looking to sweep on Saturday night, Thames did the very same thing.

"He's been put in a lot of different roles -- playing the outfield, playing DH, not playing every day," outfielder Curtis Granderson said. "He gets a chance to go up there against a really tough lefty and delivers with an opposite-field home run. Absolutely amazing. ... He's been doing a great job for us all season long in understanding his role and accepting that."

Thames normally doesn't watch the postseason if he isn't playing in it. But he admitted to flipping on the TV last year to catch the Yankees celebrating their 27th World Series championship over the Phillies.

"It looked like they were having a good time," Thames said.

Three months later -- on Super Bowl Sunday, no less -- the Yankees called Thames up to say they were giving him a shot. Then, despite his lousy spring, they took a gamble. Now, Thames is a critical part of the club's success.

Welcome to the postseason.

"I haven't thought about [not making the team out of Spring Training]," Thames said after right-hander A.J. Burnett doused his head with a fresh bottle of champagne in the Yankees' clubhouse. "I made the team, and I'm just happy I'm here. All I asked for was a chance."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Gonzo and 'The Show'. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.