Even with Alex Rodriguez back in the lineup for the first time in more than six weeks, the New York Yankees still found themselves needing an offensive spark in the later innings against Minnesota.
Manager Joe Girardi wasn't surprised in the least that Curtis Granderson was the one to provide it.
Granderson flew around the bases for an inside-the-park home run to help the New York Yankees to a 3-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Sunday, A-Rod's first game back since July 7.
"Nothing he does really surprises me anymore," Girardi said. "You just kind of expect him to do something great every day."
Rodriguez went 0 for 5 in the cleanup spot, but Mark Teixeira followed Granderson's seventh-inning speed show with a more conventional homer and Ivan Nova (13-4) pitched seven shutout innings as the Yankees took three of four from the Twins.
Nova allowed five hits and struck out five to rebound from a poor start in Kansas City and Mariano Rivera picked up his 33rd save in 38 tries.
Joe Mauer had three hits for the Twins, who lost starter Nick Blackburn in the second inning because of a strained right forearm. Phil Dumatrait (1-2) got the loss in two innings of relief.
In a breakout season in the Bronx, Granderson has launched 34 balls into the seats to help the Yankees weather Rodriguez's long absence.
The powerful Yankees offense left the bases loaded twice in the first five innings and seemed to be slogging through the final game of a seven-day road trip when Granderson stepped to the plate against Jose Mijares in the seventh.
His drive hit high off the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center field and got away from both center fielder Ben Revere and right fielder Jason Kubel.
"I've never seen a ball hit up into that area," Kubel said. "I just thought it was like every other ball, 99 percent of the time it just drops down and hits the fence."
Instead it kicked away and Granderson motored around the bases and easily beat the throw home for his third career inside-the-park home run.
"The main thing is that each day I try to do everything I can, at any point, whether it be a sac bunt, a hit-and-run, try to steal a base, drive the baseball to help this team win a ballgame," Granderson said.
It's the kind of play MVPs make, and A-Rod wasn't shy about making that connection.
"When people compare him to other players, you can't forget he's a center fielder and he's playing a high quality defense out there," Rodriguez said. "He's scoring a bunch of runs, RBIs, the two most important stats in baseball. And he's helping our first-place team do what they're doing. In my eyes, he's the MVP."
Teixeira followed with a solo shot to left field to make it 3-0, giving them enough room even with Rodriguez still shaking the rust off in his first game in more than a month and a half.
Rodriguez missed 38 games after having surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee. The injury sapped a lot of the power from his muscular swing, limiting him to 13 homers in his first 80 games. He still has not homered since June 11.
Even though they went 25-13 in his absence, the Yankees were elated to have him back in the cleanup spot to help them in their duel with Boston for the AL East title. New York started the day with a 1/2-game lead over the Red Sox in the division.
A-Rod grounded out to shortstop twice, popped out to first base with bases loaded in the fifth, flew out to center field in the seventh and popped out to right field in the ninth.
"I was happy with the way I saw the ball and happy with my balance," Rodriguez said. "I got a lot of good pitches to hit and just missed them by a little bit. But I liked the way I felt up there."
He was tested in the field when Revere laid down a soft bunt down the third baseline to start the sixth inning. Rodriguez pounced on it, bare-handing the ball and firing to first just in time to get him. But he also mishandled a hot grounder to his backhand in the eighth off the bat of Mauer, who was awarded a hit in a close call by the official scorer.
"Today was a big success, especially because we won the game, most importantly," Rodriguez said. "I got five at-bats, got some work on the field. But for the most part I liked the way I felt up there."
With the Yankees offense struggling in the early innings, it was up to Nova to keep them in the game. The right-hander wiggled out of a two-on, nobody-out jam in the fifth. It was a good sign for Nova, who gave up seven runs in 5 1-3 innings of his last start against the Royals.
Blackburn left after walking the bases loaded with one out in the second inning. The team called it a lateral forearm strain and said he would be re-evaluated on Monday, and manager Ron Gardenhire said a trip to the disabled list could be needed.
"I was struggling bad enough," Blackburn said. "Couldn't throw any strikes, figured it was time to shut it down."
NOTES: With Rodriguez on the field and Jim Thome in the lineup for the Twins, it was the first time two players with 600 career homers had met in a game since Hank Aaron's Braves played Willie Mays' Mets on July 17, 1973. Thome went 1 for 3 with a walk. ... Yankees 1B Mark Teixeira had a fielding error in the third inning that allowed Rene Tosoni to reach base. It snapped an 87-game errorless streak that was the longest single-season streak of his career. ... The Twins drew 41,242 fans on Sunday, their 53rd sellout of the season. The series attendance was 164,950, the highest total for a four-game series since Target Field opened last year. ... The Yankees said RHP Freddy Garcia will pitch a maximum of four innings or 65 pitches in a rehab start for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Monday. ... The Yankees are off on Monday before opening a series against the Oakland Athletics in the Bronx on Tuesday. They will send Bartolo Colon (8-7, 3.54 ERA) to the mound to face RHP Brandon McCarthy (6-6, 3.74). The 38-year-old Colon gave up five runs on seven hits in five innings of his last start against Kansas City. But he is undefeated in his last three home starts, going 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA. ... The Twins will open a series against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday night. Carl Pavano (6-9, 4.52) will start for the Twins against Zach Britton (6-9, 4.66). After a rocky finish to July, Pavano has a 2.01 ERA over 22 1-3 innings pitched in three August starts.