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Lightning rod

A star is reborn as Rodriguez (10 HRs) keeps Yankees within striking distance

NEW YORK -- You could hear the thumping of steel on steel and the ruckus of cement trucks pouring concrete into the new Yankee Stadium.

When the stadium opens in 2009, they might call it the House That A-Rod Built. Alex Rodriguez is pretty much blowing up the House That Ruth Built with his potent bat. Yesterday, Rodriguez blasted a walkoff three-run homer to complete a sweep of the Cleveland Indians as the Yankees head to Fenway Park for a three-game series starting tonight.

"We needed this going into Boston," said Rodriguez. "Every game there is a war."

The Yankees are 8-6, one game behind the Sox, despite having four starting pitchers go down with injuries, mostly because Rodriguez has 10 homers and 26 RBIs in 14 games.

At the end of the season, Rodriguez can become a free agent and opt out of his 10-year, $252 million deal and out of the Bronx, where the fans who now stand on their heads for him once booed him relentlessly after his horrible 2006 postseason (1 for 14, no RBIs).

"Everything he hits is a home run," marveled teammate Derek Jeter Wednesday. "I've never seen anything like it."

Fans are in standing-O mode. On Wednesday night, Rodriguez got a curtain call after he pulled a low-and-away Tom Mastny fastball into the left-field bleachers for his ninth homer. Yesterday, he was 0 for 4 with two strikeouts before he straightened himself out in the ninth.

"[Andy] Pettitte said to me, 'You may have one more chance to do some damage.' I looked at him and I didn't quite believe him. As the inning started to develop, I got my chance."

Is this the best he's felt at the plate?

"I'm trying not to think about those things," Rodriguez said. "I've felt pretty good throughout spring training and it just carried over into the season. I'm just trying to do my part. I'm trying to enjoy this."

The Yankees have the depth to win while the pitching staff, which ranks fourth in the American League in team ERA at 3.67, mends. They did it this week, first with Chase Wright, then with Kei Igawa, who allowed two runs over six innings in Wednesday's win over the Indians. Yesterday, Darrell Rasner gave the Yankees a competent start but the bullpen blew a 2-1 lead in the seventh.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Yankees won, 10-3 and 9-2, thanks to two big innings -- a six-run second Tuesday and a five-run third Wednesday. They scored six in the ninth yesterday, outscoring the Indians, 27-11, in the three-game series. And left fielder Hideki Matsui is due back in the lineup Monday against Tampa Bay after a two-week stint on the disabled list with a left hamstring strain.

"Our guys are out there busting," Rodriguez said. "We have to look at it every game and try to win that night."

When the Yankees returned home earlier this week from the West Coast, they were in survival mode with four starting pitchers on the DL: Carl Pavano (right forearm strain), Mike Mussina (strained left hamstring), Chien-Ming Wang (right hamstring strain), and Jeff Karstens (right elbow tendinitis). It left the Yankees with Wright, a Double A lefthander, on the mound Tuesday. He scattered three runs over five innings to get the win. He gets a nationally televised start Sunday night against Daisuke Matsuzaka at Fenway Park.

"The good thing is, we know they're going to get healthy sometime," said center fielder Johnny Damon, who is playing with a bad back. "I think four of our five [starters] are out. It could be a blessing in disguise. It will give us an indication of how the young guys are going to do. This stuff keeps happening and we definitely need to see what's out there or see what's in the farm system."

Of course, there is the empty locker next to Pettitte's. Wonder who that's being saved for?

"I think Roger [Clemens] is enjoying his time off," Pettitte responded. "I know we're high up on his list. Where we're at in the standings should be a big factor, which is another reason we need to keep playing well and keep ourselves afloat."

In the running
The Yankees stayed afloat last season. If there's any team capable of running away with it, the Yankees seem capable -- with their personnel back.

"Mike Mussina goes down, OK. Chien-Ming Wang goes down. All right. Carl Pavano . . . it's a tribute to this team that we don't get overwhelmed by it," said lefthanded relief specialist Mike Myers, who volunteered to start, although manager Joe Torre did not take him up on it. "It's April. We're trying to get through it. Everybody knows they have to pull their weight. We understand that our guys are going to be back and we're going to be at full force again. This is a good ball club. We'll get through this."

"We prefer to be at full strength," general manager Brian Cashman said. "At the same time, when these things happen it's great to have the alternatives ready to go and hope they work out because that's how guys get opportunities. A couple of years ago, Chien-Ming Wang was called up to fill in for Kevin Brown, who had a bad back, and now Wang is our No. 1 starter. With injuries comes opportunities for others and you learn a lot about your organization on how deep or how not so deep you are."

Torre views this as a challenge, a way of seeing how his young pitchers respond to adversity. Someone's misfortune is someone else's opportunity. Torre saw Wright in spring training and was impressed with his stuff (he has a very good changeup and keeps the ball low in the strike zone) and toughness.

"We're a veteran team and we act like a veteran team but we have to make sure, every day, that we're going out there every day playing a full nine innings," Torre said. "We can't take it for granted. We have to work at it and make sure everybody does what they're supposed to do."

Rock solid
Catcher Jorge Posada remains the rock.

Jeter, who has endured questions about his six errors, is the captain of this uber lineup, but Myers, who has held citizenship in Red Sox Nation, said of Posada, "He's one of the guys we couldn't live without. Look at what happened when the Red Sox lost Jason Varitek last year. That's what he means to our pitching staff."

Posada continues to fly under the radar, much like Elston Howard did in the 1960s. At 35, there is no catcher in baseball who has improved his defense while continuing to hit at a high level.

"You just do the work," Posada said. "A guy like Wright I caught in spring training. Same with Karstens. I might have to be more vocal about what I call, but yet even with the young guys, if there's something they want to throw and they shake me off, that's fine. They're the ones with the ball in their hands.

"I just try to do my job. I'm not here for accolades or anything like that. I'm here to help our pitching staff and to help our team win. We're going through a tough time right now but that'll ease. We'll be OK."

Torre believes the Yankees are more prepared than ever to handle the injuries.

Wright's emergence has allowed the Yankees to develop prospect Philip Hughes at Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. The Gary Sheffield deal also brought them pitching talent, though Humberto Sanchez is out for the season after having elbow ligament-replacement surgery Wednesday. Ross Ohlendorf, acquired from Arizona in the Randy Johnson deal, has impressed.

Looking ahead, A-Rod, Damon, and Torre have allowed themselves to sneak peeks at Matsuzaka. "They [Red Sox] have a really good rotation, but they have to see how well they can hit," Damon said. "It's early. Right now it seems like all the pitchers are pretty tough. It's been tough on the hitter because of the weather and all that, but as the weather warms up, I think you'll see us get going. We have guys like A-Rod who are hot already and are having great seasons. When that cranks up, we know we have a great lineup."

Damon said of Matsuzaka, "Just watched some of his highlights. I'm sure we'll see him quite a bit. He knows what he's doing. He has the ability to throw all of his pitches for strikes, so you don't find that too often. I'm sure we'll have to scratch and claw and try to get some runs off him and try to hold their team down."

Tonight's Curt Schilling-Pettitte matchup is the most compelling. Josh Beckett opposes Karstens tomorrow, and Dice-K matches up with Wright Sunday night.

A big series is ahead, though the ever-calm Torre offered perspective, as only he can.

"It's too early," he said. "If we do well or we don't, it's not going to take anybody out of the race."

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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