(Sports Network) - The New York Yankees have put together their longest winning streak of the season without the presence of Alex Rodriguez in their lineup. The All-Star third baseman hopes to provide the American League East leaders a further boost when he makes an expected return to action for this afternoon's clash with the Toronto Blue Jays from Yankee Stadium.
Rodriguez hasn't played since leaving an August 20 contest against Seattle with a strained left calf, but the Yankees haven't been hindered by the three- time AL MVP's absence. New York has gone 11-3 since Rodriguez went on the DL and prevailed for the eighth consecutive time with Saturday's 7-5 triumph over the Blue Jays in the second test of this three-game series.
The surge, coupled with Tampa Bay's loss to Baltimore last night, has moved the Bronx Bombers 2 1/2 games up on the Rays for first place in the AL East as well as the best record in baseball.
Marcus Thames knocked in the deciding runs in Saturday's matchup by belting a tie-breaking two-run homer off Toronto reliever Jason Frasor in the bottom of the seventh inning. The blast followed a two-out single by Robinson Cano, who finished 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI on the afternoon.
Big. Huge home run," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi about Thames' shot. "Marcus has been a huge addition for us."
Joba Chamberlain, one of five New York relievers for the game, received the win after keeping the Jays off the board in the top of the seventh. Kerry Wood followed with a shutout inning before Mariano Rivera worked a scoreless ninth for his 29th save of the year.
Yankees starter Javier Vazquez lasted only 4 2/3 innings and was reached for five runs while walking four batters. Marc Rzepczynski wasn't any better for Toronto, allowing five runs and issuing three walks before exiting after four innings.
"You can't walk people and expect to survive, especially when you're dealing with a team like the Yankees, Boston or anybody in the East Division," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston remarked. "You have to throw strikes."
The Yankees will be aiming to string together nine straight victories for the first time since May 13-21, 2009 and will have 16-game winner Phil Hughes on the hill for today's finale. The All-Star hurler has compiled a 10-3 record at home during his breakthrough campaign, although he's pitched to a so-so 4.60 earned run average and surrendered 16 homers in 88 innings over those 15 Yankee Stadium starts.
Hughes has an opportunity to atone for a poor outing against the Blue Jays in Toronto on August 25, when the young right-hander was tagged for five runs and walked five while throwing 104 pitches in just 3 2/3 innings to take a loss. He also walked five batters in Tuesday's home assignment against Oakland, but was able to limit the damage to two runs in five innings and got plenty of offensive support in a 9-3 win.
The 24-year-old did come through with 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball to defeat Toronto in the Bronx on August 4 and is 2-2 with a 4.35 ERA in 15 career appearances (eight starts) against Toronto.
Brett Cecil opposed Hughes in that August 25 tilt at the Rogers Centre and helped the Blue Jays to victory by yielding just two runs over eight effective innings. The sophomore lefty has given the Yankees trouble all throughout the year, as he's 2-0 with an excellent 1.64 ERA in three 2010 starts against the defending world champs.
Cecil wasn't as sharp in last Monday's encounter with Tampa Bay, permitting five runs in seven innings during his team's 6-2 setback. Three of those runs wound up being unearned, however, due to one of three errors committed by the Blue Jays on the night.
The 24-year-old, who's 2-1 with a 4.20 ERA over five lifetime meetings with the Yankees, has put together a solid 11-7 record with a 3.74 ERA in 23 starts for the year.
Cecil will be attempting to halt a three-game slide for the Blue Jays, losers of five of their last six tests. Toronto has split 14 bouts with the Yankees this season, with New York having won five of the eight games played between the teams at home.