- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 4, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) — Alex Rodriguez became the youngest player to hit 600 home runs and did it with style, driving a pitch into Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park in center field exactly three years to the day after his 500th homer.

A-Rod reached the milestone Wednesday after a 12-game drought with a first-inning homer off Toronto’s Shaun Marcum. Rodriguez connected with a 2-0 pitch over the middle of the plate for his 17th home run of the season, giving the Yankees a 2-0 lead.

By hitting the homer into Monument Park, a stadium worker could retrieve the ball for him.

A-Rod raised a hand slightly in triumph as he rounded first base, then completed his trot to the roar of the crowd. He was greeted at home plate by Yankees captain Derek Jeter, both of them slapping outstretched hands above their heads.

Rodriguez joined an elite club that includes Barry Bonds (762), Hank Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Willie Mays (660), Ken Griffey Jr. (630) and Sammy Sosa (609).

The rest of the team also came out to greet Rodriguez. After returning to the dugout, then coming out for a curtain call, he kept on receiving congratulations in the Yankees’ dugout.

The ball he hit was the 104th specially marked one that had been used for each of his plate appearances since reaching No. 599. The Yankees immediately but commemorative T-shirts on sale at concession stands for $25 each, and one stand behind home plate sold out within two innings.

The milestone homer provided a lift during a trying stretch for the Yankees, who had lost three in a row. Not only have they watched the Tampa Bay Rays pass them for first place in the AL East, off the field they are still mourning the recent loss of owner George Steinbrenner, beloved public-address announcer Bob Sheppard and former manager Ralph Houk.

Despite saying he’s been more relaxed than he was when trying for his 500th homer, Rodriguez went just 9 for 46 after homering on July 22, the longest stretch between Nos. 599 and 600 for any of the seven to reach the mark. Mays was next at 21 at-bats, according to STATS LLC. A-Rod went 28 without a home run before 500.

“I know Alex is going to be fine,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said before the game. “Maybe I lead him off one day so he can hit the home run in the first inning and get it over with.”

Girardi laughed at his own joke.

“No, I mean, he’s our cleanup hitter and he’s going to be fine,” Girardi said. “And yeah, I mean, he’s struggling a little bit. But it’s not like all of our hitters have, you know, have not went through struggles.”

Rodriguez entered the game 4 for 17 with one home run against Marcum. He received a brief ovation when he came up again in the third inning, then grounded out to shortstop.

The Yankees’ slugger turned 35 last Tuesday, putting his home run pace far ahead of the rest. Ruth had been the youngest to hit 600, reaching the mark in 1931 at 36 years, 196 days. The Sultan of Swat did it in fewer games, though — 2,044 to 2,227 for Rodriguez.

In the three years since hitting No. 500, much has changed for him.

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