Yankees' degree of difficulty increased because of injury to Brett Gardner

Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner (11) triples to Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner (11) triples to left in the bottom of the fourth. (Sept. 4, 2013) Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City ...

BALTIMORE - Another wild pitch, another trip to the MRI tube. You try to figure this team out. We gave up about a week ago.

Long before Brendan Ryan scooted home with what turned out to be the winning run on Jim Johnson's 55-foot worm-burner last night, the Yankees suffered the latest in an ongoing series of significant losses. This time it was Brett Gardner, who happens to be their leadoff hitter and best defensive outfielder.

So instead of savoring this 6-5 victory -- and there were a multitude of reasons to enjoy it -- the Yankees will wait nervously for the results from Gardner's MRI, which is scheduled for noon today in New York. Gardner was removed midway through the first inning after he felt a stabbing pain while striking out in his first at-bat.

We'll level with you here: It doesn't sound promising. The fact that the Yankees came right out and described Gardner's injury as an oblique strain rather than just discomfort suggests the pain is enough to warrant a serious diagnosis.

More often, teams hold off until the MRI to announce a strain, then reveal the degree, from a grade 1 (least severe) to a grade 3 (most severe).

The prognosis for any oblique strain is not good. The injury usually requires several weeks to heal, and relapses are common. That means Gardner faces the very real chance of missing the rest of this season -- including the playoffs, should the Yankees qualify and still be able to field a team of relatively healthy bodies heading into October.

"I know we don't have much time left," Gardner said. "I guess it could be a possibility, but I'll hope for good news."

The Yankees haven't had much of that this season. On a number of occasions, they've been dealt worst-case scenarios, starting with Mark Teixeira in June and ending -- or so we thought -- with Derek Jeter's shutdown on Wednesday. But Joe Girardi, ever the optimist, resisted the urge to go all gloom-and-doom about Gardner. He's seen enough of oblique injuries to know this likely is big trouble.

"It usually is," Girardi said. "But you keep your fingers crossed this time of year."

Gardner's blow-by-blow of the swings that led to the injury was a classic breakdown of an oblique strain. Three "aggressive" swings, but it was trying to check the fourth one that did him in. As soon as it happened, Gardner knew he was finished, even though this was his first experience with an oblique problem.

"It felt serious enough to say something and come out of the game," Gardner said. "Take what you want from that."

When pushed further for details, Gardner added, "I didn't think anything was broken. But I felt like if I went out there, it was going to get worse."

Girardi and Gardner both skipped the pretense of using "precautionary" to describe pulling him or the MRI. He's full-blown hurt, and now it's just a matter of determining the timetable to get healthy.

On these Yankees, Gardner really can't be replaced, not for what he does on a nightly basis. It was another sobering blow for a team that has absorbed far more than its share this season, and could be one too many coming at this late stage.

Gardner has scored a team-high 81 runs, three more than Robinson Cano. Only Cano has played more games (146) this season than Gardner, who trails him by one. The Yankees have Curtis Granderson ready to take over in center, but Gardner is their best defensive outfielder, and Ichiro Suzuki is not much of a replacement in the leadoff spot.

Now the Yankees have to find a way to shrug this off, too. Eventually, every team has its breaking point, but the tunnel-vision goggles they've been wearing have served them well so far in trying to stay afloat. And it's not as if this is an impressionable bunch. When you're the oldest team in the majors by almost two years, you tend not to get caught up in the emotional swings.

Good thing. Because this feels as if it's only going to get crazier during the next three weeks. And yes, maybe into October, even if it means getting there without Gardner.

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