A-Rod expected to return for Yankees' opener with Rays

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The New York Yankees are expected to welcome Alex Rodriguez back to the lineup on Monday when they begin another important three-game set with the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.

The three-time AL MVP's return could not come at a better time for the Yankees, who dropped two of three over the weekend to Baltimore and saw their lead atop the AL East trimmed to just three games over the Orioles.

Tampa is in third place, 3 1/2 games back of the Yanks.

"We need to play better baseball," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "The goal is always to play better baseball, not worry about where you are."

Rodriguez has been out with a non-displaced fracture in left hand that he sustained after getting hit with a Felix Hernandez pitch back on July 24. The Yankees were 18-18 in his absence and were able to muster just eight runs and 16 hits in the three games against Baltimore.

"We can use (Rodriguez's) bat. We need him to come back and help us," Girardi said.

It will also help to have CC Sabathia on the hill in the opener. The big lefty struggled his last time out, as he allowed five runs (2 earned) and nine hits in seven innings in a loss to Toronto on Wednesday. He is 13-4 on the year with a 3.40 ERA.

"It's definitely disappointing," Sabathia said. "It's all my fault, obviously."

Sabathia lost to the Rays the last time he faced them and is 10-8 with a 3.09 ERA in 27 starts.

Tampa, meanwhile, got itself back on track this weekend, taking the final two games of its series with the Toronto Blue Jays after losing the first two. The Rays have won just three of their last nine games and are 1 1/2 games behind in the wild card race.

On Monday, James Shields heads to the hill trying to bounce back from a hard- luck loss his last time out. Shields lost for the first time in five decisions on Tuesday in Texas, despite surrendering a run and three hits in seven innings. He also struck out eight, but fell to 12-8 to go along with a 3.91 ERA.

Shields beat the Yankees the last time he faced them, but New York has given him problems, as he is just 6-13 lifetime against them with a 4.58 ERA in 24 starts.

Tampa has won seven of 12 matchups with the Yanks this season, including five of six at the Trop.