ST. PETERSBURG -- Alex Rodriguez was activated from the disabled list and inserted into the Yankees' starting lineup for Monday's series opener against the Rays at Tropicana Field, batting cleanup.

"It's exciting; it's definitely exciting," Rodriguez said. "I'm thrilled to be back. You get the game taken away from you for five weeks and you feel like a little kid coming back. I'm just blessed to be back."

Rodriguez, who singled in a three-run fourth inning to tie Babe Ruth for 40th place on the all-time hits list with No. 2,873, hadn't played since having his left hand fractured by a Felix Hernandez pitch on July 24 in Seattle.

The Yankees went 18-18 without Rodriguez, seeing their lead in the American League East shrink from seven games at the time to just two entering play on Monday.

"We're in first place -- that's the bottom line," Rodriguez said. "If you draw it up in Spring Training and say you've got a two-game lead in September, you'd take that 10 out of 10 times. That's why we build a 10-game lead [on July 18]. Hopefully, the bad baseball is behind us and we can start playing some great Yankee baseball."

Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that the lineup could use Rodriguez to provide some right-handed balance, as his absence made them more susceptible to left-handed pitching.

"You hope he makes [the lineup] deeper," Girardi said. "I know he hasn't played in a while; he hasn't played in six weeks, and we're just looking for quality at-bats from him. I can't tell you what exactly is going to happen today, but that's our hope."

Girardi said he might play Rodriguez at third base in one of the games against the Rays. Rodriguez said that he believes the speed of the defensive game might present his greatest challenge.

Rodriguez appeared in two rehab games for Class A Advanced Tampa and went 0-for-7 before taking Sunday off to work on the side in preparation for Monday's afternoon game at Tropicana Field. He said that watching the Yankees play without him was "frustrating."

"Just watching in general is not easy," Rodriguez said, "especially when you've got all your brothers out there playing and you feel like you want to be out there participating and being part of our winning DNA. I'm just glad to be back."

Pettitte: 'I think I'm over the hump' in recovery

NEW YORK -- Andy Pettitte is still awaiting word from doctors that he is in the clear in his recovery from a fractured left ankle, but after throwing a 35-pitch bullpen session Sunday and pushing off harder than he did his last time on the mound, Pettitte and the Yankees believe the left-hander made significant progress.

"I think he's making a lot of progress now," said manager Joe Girardi. "The fact that he's off the mound, he's comfortable and he's recovering fine tells me he's on the path to getting back."

Pettitte and the Yankees are still taking his rehab day by day, but Girardi said they are beginning to map out a return, and pitching coach Larry Rothschild is starting to talk about how to slot Pettitte back into the rotation.

Rothschild told Pettitte he looked great during the bullpen session, and the 40-year-old lefty said he had good command of his pitches. Girardi expects Pettitte to throw again Wednesday, but is unsure of the setting. Pettitte said there was talk of throwing batting practice, so he can pitch with someone in the batter's box for the first time since he took a comebacker off his ankle on June 27.

Pettitte said he tried not to think about his ankle on the mound, applying more pressure as he pushed off. And he said he felt good afterward, and was confident he would remain that way.

"Just from the last few days and the last time I threw, I felt like I knew I was going to come in the next day and feel good," Pettitte said. "Walking around and stuff like that, I didn't feel any pressure, where I might have felt it seven or 10 days ago. I think I'm over the hump."

Granderson rests hamstring in series finale vs. O's

NEW YORK -- Curtis Granderson was out of the Yankees' lineup for Sunday's series finale with tendinitis in his right hamstring, which forced the center fielder from Saturday's 4-3 win after two innings. Manager Joe Girardi said Granderson might get another day off for Monday's series opener against Tampa Bay, but he appeared unconcerned that the issue would linger.

"Usually with some rest and medication, you can rid yourself of tendinitis," Girardi said. "The good news is he didn't pull anything, but we're going to have to give him a day or two."

September callup Chris Dickerson started in place of Granderson in center field, hitting eighth, on Sunday. Eric Chavez and Raul Ibanez moved into the four and five spots in the lineup, respectively, where Granderson appeared of late. Chavez marked the Yankees' fourth different cleanup hitter in the past five games since they lost Mark Teixeira to a Grade 1 left calf strain. The cleanup hitters are 2-for-14 in that stretch, with two runs, two RBIs, and one Granderson home run.

"We've had to put some guys in there that usually don't hit fourth, but it's what we have to do," Girardi said. "These guys have tried to grind out their at-bats. Hopefully you get some guys back."

Bombers bits

• Girardi said he would not offer a guess for when Teixeira would return from his Grade 1 left calf strain, but said the Yankees need to be cautious, because a setback would likely prevent the first baseman from returning this season.

• Ivan Nova threw a bullpen session Sunday that Girardi said went well, but the manager is more interested to see how Nova and the tendinitis in his right shoulder respond a day later. Girardi was unsure of what the next step would be for Nova if the right-hander felt OK.