Alex Rodriguez homered in his return to the Yankees' lineup last night, but it was not nearly enough, as New York was routed by the visiting Baltimore Orioles, 12-2.

After missing 3 weeks with a strained right quadriceps, the three-time American League Most Valuable Player hit cleanup and played third base for the last-place Yankees, who trailed Baltimore, 9-0, before he even came to bat.

The teams nearly came to blows after Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter was hit by a pitch on his left hand. X-rays were negative and he is day-to-day with a bruised hand.

Adam Jones led the Orioles with four RBI.

A-Rod reached on an error his first time up in the second inning, then grounded out in the fourth. He hit a two-run shot off Daniel Cabrera in the sixth, his fifth home run of the season and first since April 16 against Boston.

With a lineup heavy on lefthanded hitters, New York has struggled against lefthanded pitching in particular lately. Rodriguez' powerful presence from the right side should help balance the offense.

"It changes the dynamics of your lineup," manager Joe Girardi said.

Rodriguez was activated from the 15-day disabled list. To make room for him on the roster, the Yankees optioned righthanded reliever Chris Britton to Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Girardi spoke to Rodriguez before the game and reminded him to just be himself now that he's back. The slugger also acknowledged that he must guard against trying to do too much.

"There's always a danger, especially because we need wins. There's a lot of urgency on this team right now," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez was hitting .286 with 11 RBI in 91 at-bats when he went on the disabled list April 30. He said it was difficult for him to watch the Yankees on television while he was sidelined.

"I found it easier to watch other games," he said.

Rodriguez finished his rehabilitation at the Yankees' complex in Tampa, Fla., going 3-for-10 with a home run in two extended spring- training games.

He said he is ready to go all-out, but he just needs to be smart about his legs. "I don't think going kamikaze on the bases is the answer," he said.

Yankees All-Star catcher Jorge Posada remains on the disabled list with tendinitis in his throwing shoulder. He hopes to return in early June.

In other games:

* At Boston, rookie Justin Masterson (1-0) pitched 6 1/3 strong innings a day after Jon Lester's no-hitter against Kansas City and the Red Sox beat the Royals, 2-1.

* At Detroit, the Tigers got home runs from Edgar Renteria (five RBI), Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen and Curtis Granderson as they pounded out 17 hits in a 12-8 win over Seattle.

* At Toronto, John Lackey (1-0) won for the first time since Sept. 28, pitching seven strong innings to help the Los Angeles Angels down the Blue Jays, 3-1.

* At Chicago, Jim Thome and Carlos Quentin hit solo homers to lift the White Sox to a 4-1 victory over Cleveland and their season-high sixth straight win.

* At Minneapolis, Glen Perkins pitched six scoreless innings for his first major league win and the Twins beat Texas, 11-4. Perkins (1-1) gave up six hits and three runs in 6 1/3 innings.

* At Oakland, Tampa Bay scored all three of its runs on leftfielder Emil Brown's error with two out in the eighth inning to beat the A's, 3-2.

Noteworthy

* Minnesota second baseman Matt Tolbert will have surgery tomorrow to repair a detached ligament in his left thumb.

* Herbert H. Hash, the oldest living former Red Sox pitcher, died in Virginia of a stroke, according to the University of Richmond, where he played several college sports. He was 97. *