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03/30/11 10:00 AM ET

A-Rod hopes hot start carries over to season

Yankees have renewed optimism following Spring Training

Now that the regular season begins Thursday at 1:05 p.m. ET vs. the Tigers, Alex Rodriguez will be sorry to see his gaudy Grapefruit League statistics be reset as the Yankees start playing games that really count.

But Rodriguez's wrecking-ball tour of Florida pitching has given him the confidence that there can be at least one important number in his future -- approaching 150 or more games played this season.

"That's always a goal," Rodriguez said. "One of the most important things for me is games played, because your team needs you out there. I feel that if I'm out there, I'm going to help the team win."

For a veteran team like the Yankees, keeping their stars on the field and productive promises to be a key to their hopes of reaching the postseason for the 16th time in 17 years.

Opening Day results: March 31 | April 1
Yankees 6, Tigers 0
WP: Chamberlain   LP: Coke   SV: Rivera
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Finally cleared for more baseball exercises and less day-to-day rehab for his surgically repaired right hip, Rodriguez stepped up as the biggest spring slugger in a Yankees lineup that hopes to again pace the Majors in runs scored.

"Alex's spring was unbelievable. I don't know any other way to describe it," manager Joe Girardi said. "The power he displayed and how hard he hit the ball on a consistent basis -- I don't know if you're surprised, but to see a guy locked in from Day 1 is kind of different to see."

Rodriguez said that his improved work in the batting cages deserves all the credit for his spring success, which included two towering homers that cleared the center-field batter's eye at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

"One swing here and one swing there, you can pop it up or hit it out of the park," Rodriguez said. "It's irrelevant at this time of the year. For me, when we come down here, it's all about work and repetition."

Setting the table with Brett Gardner or Derek Jeter in the leadoff spot, the Yankees are counting on Mark Teixeira to avoid another slow start, hoping for health from Rodriguez and looking for Robinson Cano to continue emerging into a full-fledged superstar.

Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher return to the outfield, and with Jorge Posada transitioning to the designated hitter role, newcomer Russell Martin will handle the catching duties.

Projected Opening Day lineup
1 LF Brett Gardner
2 SS Derek Jeter
3 1B Mark Teixeira
4 3B Alex Rodriguez
5 2B Robinson Cano
6 RF Nick Swisher
7 DH Jorge Posada
8 CF Curtis Granderson
9 C Russell Martin
Projected rotation
1 LHP CC Sabathia
2 RHP A.J. Burnett
3 RHP Phil Hughes
4 RHP Ivan Nova
5 RHP Freddy Garcia
Projected bullpen
CL RHP Mariano Rivera
SU RHP Rafael Soriano
SU RHP Joba Chamberlain
MI RHP Dave Robertson
MI LHP Boone Logan
MI RHP Bartolo Colon
MI LHP Steve Garrison or RHP Luis Ayala
Full 25-man roster | Depth chart

"We've got a lot of talent throughout our lineup, so we're going to score runs," hitting coach Kevin Long said. "There's going to be days where we score a lot of runs, there's going to be days when we have to manufacture runs. We'll be able to do that."

Entering the spring with a roster that general manager Brian Cashman characterized as "incomplete," the Yankees felt much better about their chances of competing with the Red Sox by the time they boarded their flight back to New York.

Seven weeks in the sun had renewed their optimism toward competing, as some of the shine came off Boston's lustrous winter and New York had a much better pitching competition than they could have anticipated.

"We should expect to win every single year," Teixeira said. "When teams are out there trying to beat us in the offseason, that's good, because we are the gold standard in baseball. We have to live up to that."

New York re-enters play with CC Sabathia again heading the rotation as the staff ace, and the Yankees will cross their fingers and hope that A.J. Burnett can live up to billing as the No. 2 starter in Sabathia's shadow.

Phil Hughes, an 18-game winner last season, moves up into the No. 3 rotation slot, and the Yankees believe they have a bona fide big league starter in 24-year-old Ivan Nova.

A healthier Freddy Garcia rounds out the rotation after making 28 starts and winning 12 games for the White Sox last year. That starting five will lean on a bullpen that ranks among the league's best.

When the Yankees came up empty in their bid to import free agent left-hander Cliff Lee and said goodbye to the retiring Andy Pettitte, ownership decided the best course of action would be to upgrade the relief corps.

Rafael Soriano will begin his first season as the setup man for closer Mariano Rivera, who went through a typically light spring workload -- no gray road pants in his locker, as usual -- but still blistered fragments of bats all over the George M. Steinbrenner Field grass with regularity.

"I always want to win," Rivera said. "It doesn't matter if you have 10 rings, 50 rings. I would want the 60th one. But everything comes down to how you feel, how you feel in your heart, if you still have the passion."

The Yankees also boast a bench that Girardi agrees may be the best since he took over Joe Torre's old office, wielding proven talent like Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones to complement young infielder Eduardo Nunez, who beat out Ramiro Pena in a spring battle for a roster spot.

As they prepare for the season opener, the Yankees' only injury-related concerns are mild, keeping eyes on left-hander Pedro Feliciano and outfielder Curtis Granderson after an otherwise solid spring.

"I feel good about this team," Girardi said. "I know one of the things we have to do is stay healthy. If you don't have your left-handed specialist and your center fielder starting the season, that's not how you want to get started. But I believe this team is extremely talented. I like this team."

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