Yankees outielder Brett Gardner takes batting practice during spring training...

Yankees outielder Brett Gardner takes batting practice during spring training workouts at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 21. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

TAMPA, Fla. – Brett Gardner came back to the Yankees early in the offseason for a $2-million pay cut. At age 35 and coming off a down season, he could have been looking at a cut in playing time, too.

But the growing concern that Aaron Hicks might have to start the season on the injured list because of a lower-back injury has Gardner back in two familiar places in a sizzling spring training: centerfield and the leadoff spot.

Gardner has been absolutely raking. After going 1-for-2 on Saturday against the Blue Jays at Steinbrenner Field, he is batting .455 with three home runs, six RBIs and a 1.345 OPS.

“He’s had quite a spring this year,” Aaron Judge said. “He’s fired up. There’s a little extra pep in his step. It’s been fun to watch.”

Hicks, who has been out since March 1, eventually will return and Gardner will slide over to leftfield, at least against righties. He struggled in the second half last season and finished with a .236 batting average, 12 home runs, 45 RBIs and a .690 OPS. It was his first time with an OPS under .713 since his rookie season of 2008, when he played in 42 games and had an OPS of .582.

“He’s a pretty motivated guy,” manager Aaron Boone said. “I don’t believe there’d be much change if he’s coming off a monster season or a season where it’s up and down a little bit. He’s at a point in his career where there’s a hunger to win, and that’s kind of what he keeps showing up for now.”

Gardner is the longest-tenured Yankee and is kind of a co-captain in the clubhouse along with CC Sabathia, who is beginning his final season.

Not that he needed to, but Gardner endeared himself even more to his teammates and Boone when he crashed into the centerfield fence to make a dazzling catch in the first inning of Friday’s 14-1 win over the Red Sox.

“That was great,” Judge said. “That fired me up. He’s a hell of an outfielder, man. You could put him anywhere. You can put him in leftfield, centerfield or right and he’ll get the job done.''

Judge pointed out that Gardner is always cautioning him to avoid running into fences. But Gardner clarified on Saturday that he means the short side fences that corner outfielders have to contend with at Steinbrenner Field.

“I definitely, the older I get, the more aware I am of different things like that,” Gardner said. “There were a couple plays earlier in the spring – it might have even been the first home game – when I remember Judge running over there next to the little short wall over in front of the bullpen and being concerned about that big body running into that wall. Centerfield’s a little different. You’ve got a big padded wall.”

Crashing into walls or diving for balls in spring training is always tricky for outfielders because of the risk/reward ratio. For example, Washington’s Michael A. Taylor hurt his left hip and knee diving for a ball on Thursday and is going to start the season on the injured list.

“There’s obviously a time and place for everything,” Gardner said.

The Yankees were reminded of that Saturday when top prospect Estevan Florial crashed into the centerfield wall while going after an eighth-inning triple. X-rays revealed that Florial suffered a non-displaced fracture of his right wrist.He was sent for X-rays of his right wrist. 

Boone said of Gardner, “Look, we love him in that room for a lot of reasons. One of them is the way he goes about things and the competitor that he is. Just because it’s a spring training game, especially when he gets on defense, he’s going to go catch the ball if he can go get it.”

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