New York Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner (11) singles during...

New York Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner (11) singles during the bottom of the second inning against the Texas Rangers at Yankee Stadium. (April 17, 2010) Credit: Christopher Pasatieri

To stop the Yankees' lineup, you must conquer a pair of future Hall of Famers in Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez (please, no judging). And two more, Jorge Posada and Mark Teixeira, who will at least merit Cooperstown discussion.

And two more All-Stars, Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson, and two of the game's toughest at-bats, the Nicks, Johnson and Swisher.

Which leaves Little Ol' Brett Gardner, the No. 9 hitter and titular weakest link. Who, after his performance yesterday, evoked this response from Texas manager Ron Washington:

"The Yankees got another Ichiro."

Of course, but you couldn't blame Washington for feeling a little shell-shocked. The Yankees cruised past the Rangers, 7-3, at Yankee Stadium, and it felt as if Gardner inflicted the most damage - without ever hitting the ball into the outfield.

He had three infield hits, the most by a Yankee since Don Mattingly stroked three infield hits on Aug. 19, 1992, against Oakland (thanks, Elias Sports Bureau). The first two, in the second and third innings, sparked rallies that put the home team up 6-0.

The other 29 teams would kill for such a weakest link.

"We're glad we have that weapon on our side," said Alex Rodriguez, who hit his 584th home run.

Said Gardner: "We've got that kind of offense that, where I'm hitting in the lineup, all I've got to do is get on base. It doesn't matter how."

He came up in the second with two outs and Jorge Posada on first base, the score 0-0, and he tapped a swinging bunt to the first-base side of the mound. Rangers pitcher Scott Feldman unleashed a shaky throw that Gardner easily beat as first baseman Chris Davis was pulled off the bag. A Jeter single, Johnson walk and Teixeira infield single later, the Yankees had two runs on the board.

"He makes that play, we're off the field right there," Washington said of Feldman. "But it's not easy to make that play on [Gardner]."

In the third, the Yankees had men on second and third with two outs when Gardner slapped a soft grounder the other way into the hole. Shortstop Elvis Andrus tried but failed to nail Gardner and Posada scored, with Granderson advancing to third.

During Jeter's at-bat, Gardner created more damage when he broke for second, stopping just short of the bag, and drew an errant throw from catcher Taylor Teagarden that skipped into centerfield, allowing Granderson to score. Jeter immediately followed with a two-run homer.

"That's what Gardy does," Joe Girardi said. "He creates problems for the other defense. It's what we've always liked of him and what he's capable of doing. He's a pest."

A high chopper off home plate in the fifth gave Gardner his third infield hit as he beat the throw of Texas reliever Doug Mathis. He nearly made it four in the eighth, but he hit the ball too hard to Andrus, who barely got him at first.

"I just put some balls in the right spots," Gardner said. "It's one of those things where I had a little luck on my side, and had a good day, and was able to get on base for the guys behind me."

For the moment, Gardner plays leftfield in a platoon with the more powerful, less athletic Marcus Thames, who started Thursday and Friday against opposing lefthanded starters. As the season progresses, Gardner should get some chances against lefties.

More to the point, though, there's no reason to think he can't handle a regular spot in the Yankees' lineup.

He lost his centerfield job to Melky Cabrera last year. Now? If he's their biggest question mark, the 8-3 Yankees have every reason to feel very, very good about this young season.

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