Brett Gardners big night may be window into his best Yankees role

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Brett Gardner, force off the bench.

Who woulda thunk it?

Actually, the Yankees have contemplated that for quite a while now, except that Gardner’s outfield successors keep flaming out and the man himself annually proves to be as durable as a Galapagos tortoise. On Friday night at Yankee Stadium, though, the struggling 37-year-old began his work shift in the eighth inning and provided a whole week’s worth of impact in just four frames, leading the Yankees to a huge, 3-2, 11-inning victory over the Mariners by starting the game-tying rally and completing the game-finishing drive.

“It’s funny, he didn’t start. He came in towards the end of the game,” Giancarlo Stanton, who delivered a clutch hit of his own, said afterwards of his teammate. “It just shows how huge it wound up being, that he had to stay locked in and help us out there.”

“Yeah, maybe a little,” Gardner said, in response to a question about whether he received a rush from entering mid-game, “but especially a game like tonight. To be able to come in in a big spot like that and be trusted in that situation, tonight I was able to do a pretty good job with that. You never know when your name might be called so you just have to be ready.”

With their fourth straight win and 19th in 27 games, the Yankees (60-49) closed within three games of the losing Red Sox (64-47) for the American League’s first wild-card slot and, in a sign of the AL East’s competitiveness, they avoided falling to fourth place behind the en fuego Blue Jays (58-49), who thumped the Sawx on Friday. They did this by relying on a fleet of nine pitchers, beginning with opener Wandy Peralta and ending with victorious rookie Albert Abreu, as a byproduct of COVID-19 sidelining both Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery while Domingo German sits on the injured list with an ailing right shoulder.

The Yankees’ intermittently revitalized lineup, however, accomplished nothing through seven innings, managing a scant three hits (all singles) and two walks off Seattle starter Marco Gonzales (20 outs) and veteran reliever Joe Smith (one out). Then Gardner pinch-hit for recent addition Jonathan Davis (who started in center field) to start the eighth against old pal Diego Castillo, who was recently acquired from the Rays.

Gardner worked a seven-pitch walk against Castillo and moved around the bases when DJ LeMahieu walked and Anthony Rizzo was hit by a pitch, before Aaron Judge swatted a game-tying sacrifice fly. Stanton ended the inning by grounding into a double play, only to come through huge two innings later, the game nearly over, by driving home Gardner with the tying run on a single to right-center.

Then came the 11th, Abreu preventing the M’s from scoring in the top of the frame, only for Gleyber Torres (pop to shortstop) and Kyle Higashioka (strikeout) to fail to advance ghost runner Joey Gallo against pitcher Kenyan Middleton. That brought up Gardner.

The 14-year Yankee fell behind, 0-and-2, before looking at a pair of balls and then drilling a Middleton fastball into center field. The athletic Gallo cruised home for the victory as the Yankees burst out of the dugout and hugged Gardner between first and second base.

“Needless to say, he’s so revered and respected in [the clubhouse],” Boone said of Gardner. “I think that makes this one even extra special.”

For the season, quite likely his last, Gardner now owns a .199/.319/.305 slash line. It has been a rough go, yet he still grinds through each individual at-bat.

“Definitely a good moment for me, a good moment for us, to be able to come through in that spot for the guys and pull that one out,” Gardner said. “Gotta keep working.”

For now, Boone said, he’ll deploy a center field platoon, starting Gardner against righties and Davis against lefties. Here’s a vote for fewer Gardner starts, even if that means replacing Davis with the demoted Greg Allen, so the Yankees don’t overexpose their beloved veteran and enjoy shorter bursts from him.

“It’s definitely nice having him over there and [to] be able to shoot him in the right matchups,” Boone said of Gardner. “Obviously [to] have his speed and defense sitting over there as well definitely gives you a good look.”

It looked great Friday night, as the Yankees look their 2021 best.

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