NEW YORK -- It took Mariano Rivera blowing an unprecedented third consecutive save opportunity to overshadow the ongoing saga of Alex Rodriguez, who somehow managed to turn Yankee Stadium's boos into cheers with a pair of timely swings.
And on this Sunday afternoon filled with unlikely events, Brett Gardner supplied the exclamation point. The light-hitting speedster slugged the first walk-off home run of his career with two outs in the ninth inning, lifting the Yankees to a 5-4 victory over the Tigers in the Bronx.
"I think Mo has bailed us out quite a few times. Things like that happen," Gardner said. "That's the first time I've ever hit a walk-off homer. It might be the last. It didn't matter if it was me or someone else, we just needed to get a win today."
Gardner's winning blast off Jose Veras came one inning after he slammed into the center-field wall making a terrific catch of a deep Torii Hunter drive, knocking the wind out of himself and rolling the ball away as his teammates completed a double play.
That preserved a two-run lead as Rivera tried to bounce back from tough outings on Wednesday facing the White Sox and on Friday against Detroit. Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez had other plans, slugging solo home runs to hand Rivera a third straight blown save for the first time in his storied career.
"At least it's only the first time," Rivera said. "I don't pay attention to that stuff. I just try to go out there and do my job. The last three opportunities, I haven't done it. You have to continue battling and get better."
Rivera said that the pitches were in hittable locations to Cabrera and Martinez, both professional hitters who are quite capable of handling such mistakes. Asked if he was concerned about Rivera's mini-slump, manager Joe Girardi simply formed a zero with his right index finger and thumb.
"It's not very often you get Mariano Rivera twice in the same series and don't win either game," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.
Gardner's second Gatorade bath of the series, as well as Rivera's stumble, came after Rodriguez's mixed receptions warmed into applause. The embattled slugger slugged career homer No. 648 and drove in two runs, helping the Yankees to their first series victory since they defeated the Orioles on July 5-7 in New York.
"I think the fans have been incredible. I said that yesterday," Rodriguez said. "You want to turn boos into cheers, you want to go out and make them proud. All you want is really an opportunity and a chance. I think New York always gives you that. I certainly feel that way walking around the city. The support has never been stronger in my 10 years. I'm very thankful."
Rodriguez followed his second-inning homer by poking a 98-mph Justin Verlander fastball to right field for a third-inning RBI single -- Rodriguez said that he initially thought he had fouled it back to the upper deck -- and played well at third base despite committing an error.
"Our hope was that he is in midseason form when he gets here, but you're never sure when a guy comes off the DL, and he's been there for a long time," Girardi said. "Today was a great day for him."
Rodriguez, of course, is continuing to take the field as he awaits the appeal of a 211-game suspension levied by Major League Baseball for violations of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program and the Basic Agreement.
"I think it's a work in progress," Rodriguez said. "I still think I'm going to actually get better hopefully every day and today was a step in the right direction."
Alfonso Soriano launched a solo home run for his 2,000th career hit as the Yankees produced four runs in seven innings against Verlander, who remains winless in five regular-season starts at the current Yankee Stadium.
"Things don't always go your way. I felt like my stuff was pretty good today," Verlander said. "Those guys, it's a very professional team and they had some good at-bats."
Andy Pettitte turned in what Girardi called a "gritty" start; on the ropes after allowing a first-inning run for the eighth straight start, Pettitte induced a desperately needed double-play ball to escape but ran out of gas by the fifth.
"It's taxing on my body to throw that many pitches early in the game," said Pettitte, who tossed 103 in all. "I'm out there battling and grinding as hard as I can, but we've got to win ballgames right now."
Shawn Kelley relieved Pettitte and recorded two crucial outs as the Tigers left the bases loaded. Boone Logan also got Prince Fielder to fly out in the sixth, stranding two runners. Brayan Pena slugged a solo homer off David Robertson in the eighth to halve the Tigers' deficit, snapping Robertson's 20 1/3-innings scoreless stretch.
If nothing else, taking two of three from the first-place Tigers offers the Yankees a confidence boost as they continue to keep their postseason hopes in play.
"We've got to win series at some point. Even if it's not a sweep, you can just win two out of three," Gardner said. "We haven't been playing well, there's no secret about that. It's a good start for us."