Brett Gardner doing well batting leadoff but needs to stop diving

New York Yankees' Brett Gardner running to first

New York Yankees' Brett Gardner running to first on a base hit in the 1st inning against the Toronto Blue Jays in a pre-season game during spring training at George Steinbrenner Field, Fla. (Feb. 24, 2013). (Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.)

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Brett Gardner repeated what he's said before. He prefers to hit leadoff. But the outfielder doesn't lack the ability to be introspective.

"They've given me a couple of opportunities in the past and I really haven't taken advantage," he said. "It's kind of my fault."

Early as it is, the 2013 results have been promising. Now, if the Yankees could just get him to stop diving into first base . . .

"I'll talk to him tomorrow," manager Joe Girardi sighed, indicating it's a conversation he's had before with no effect. "I'll just tell him not to do it, but I know the next time he probably [will]."

Gardner, who went 1-for-3 in his first exhibition game Sunday, was 3-for-3 Monday in the Yankees' 5-1 loss to the Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium.

The good day included a bunt single and a solid liner to center. Gardner's first and third hits came off lefthanders.

Now to the bad:

In Gardner's first at-bat, he slapped a grounder to Chris Davis at first, forcing him off the bag. Davis flipped to pitcher Brian Matusz and a diving Gardner easily beat the play . . . while nearly getting a hand stepped on.

"I'm not crazy about it," Girardi said, with the memory of losing another outfielder, Curtis Granderson, the day before still fresh in his head. "But the hard thing is, it's instinctual."

Gardner said he heard, somewhat good-naturedly, from several teammates and coaches -- he specifically mentioned third-base coach Rob Thomson -- when he returned to the bench.

Gardner said of Girardi: "He's said it enough to me where he probably knows it's going in one ear and out the other."

Gardner correctly pointed out that he broke his left thumb during a feet-first slide in July 2009 when his thumb hit the side of second base as he tried to break up a double play.

"It's a silly game," he said. "But it's definitely not something I should have done. I'll work on not doing it anymore."

Gardner didn't use the word "instinctual," as Girardi did, but he was in the ballpark. "It's almost just habit," Gardner said.

The Yankees hope -- and with Granderson out, need it more than ever -- that what becomes habit is Gardner turning into the kind of on-base machine they've long projected him to be.

In his career, Gardner has hit .254 with a .342 OBP and .351 slugging percentage from the leadoff spot. His career line from all spots in the order reads .266/.355/.368.

Even before Granderson -- who hit 84 home runs the previous two years -- was lost for 10 weeks with a broken right forearm, Girardi said the Yankees will need to score "in different ways" this season.

Gardner doing well in the leadoff spot against righties -- Derek Jeter, if healthy, likely will lead off against lefties -- would go a long way toward achieving that.

Scouts have said Gardner should be a better bunter than he is, something he said he worked on during the offseason.

So his third-inning bunt, perfectly placed toward third, might have been the most encouraging part of the day.

"I feel really good with it," Gardner said. "It's something I plan to do a lot of . . . It could be a big weapon."

Gardner is entrenched in centerfield for now, but given his uneven career, he isn't taking anything for granted.

"I never come into spring training feeling I've established myself or that I have a job or anything like that. Just continue to work hard," he said. "Don't be complacent with where I'm at. Just trying to improve my game, every aspect of it."

And eventually, maybe, even eliminating those dives into first.

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