With all due respect and reverence, the new and younger Yankees know little about the former captain of the team, so chalk it up to youthful exuberance when they place Brett Gardner in the same category as Derek Jeter — if not by name, then certainly by leadership.
Then again, this is their era, their time, so why not?
Clint Frazier started the captain conversation after Gardner hit a walk-off homer in the 11th inning to beat the Rays on Thursday night, and the volume increased Saturday when Gardner singled with the bases loaded and none out in the bottom of the ninth for a 5-4 victory. The eighth walk-off hit of Gardner’s career gave the AL East-leading Yankees six straight victories and eight in nine games.
Frazier was in the on-deck circle as Gardner headed to the plate in the ninth. Chase Headley, who had given the Yankees a 4-3 lead in the sixth with a pinch-hit two-run homer to the opposite field, had led off the ninth with a walk against Brad Boxberger. Pinch runner Jacoby Ellsbury stole second and Todd Frazier was hit by a pitch, and when Ronald Torreyes bunted between the mound and third base, Boxberger watched it roll for a hit.
Lefthander Dan Jennings replaced Boxberger, and with the infield in, Gardner lined the ball up the middle and into centerfield to empty the Yankees’ dugout. Unlike Thursday night, when Aaron Judge had his tooth chipped by an errant helmet, no players were injured in the making of this celebration.
“There’s no reason not to be comfortable in a spot like that,’’ Gardner said of his opportunity. “That’s the reason we play the game is to come up in a spot like that — bases loaded, no outs.’’
Frazier knew he likely would not have to bat. “He’s a fighter,’’ he said. “He’s a guy that you want up to bat with the game on the line. He’s done it two out of three games this series. I think he’s the guy that gets us going and everyone kind of looks for motivation, gets up or just follows his lead.’’
Todd Frazier added, “You see Brett Gardner taking care of business every time. He just makes it look easy out there. Hopefully, we’ll keep riding that ship. He’ll carry us right into the playoffs. We’ll follow his lead when he leads off and we’ll go from there.’’
Gardner did not dare go near what is the third rail of thinking anyone can replace Jeter. “To be honest, I don’t think there’ll ever be another captain here, much less anytime soon,’’ he said. “But it’s nice that some of them think of me as one of the leaders of the team. I don’t think too much about it. It’s obviously a compliment, but we all know who the captain is. [Jeter’s] still the captain.’’
Peter Bourjos homered on Smith’s second pitch of the game, but the Yankees tied it at 1 on Didi Gregorius’ sacrifice fly in the second. Former Met Lucas Duda delivered a sacrifice fly in the third for the Rays, but Gary Sanchez’s 16th homer made it 2-2 in the fourth.
Steven Souza Jr. homered off Adam Warren in the fifth to give the Rays a 3-2 lead. Headley’s two-run shot in the sixth put the Yankees ahead 4-3, but Duda hit a tremendous drive off the facing of the upper deck just inside the rightfield foul pole off David Robertson in the eighth to make it 4-4. It was Duda’s 19th homer of the season.
The Yankees are winning, but there still is an issue with the starting rotation. In his second start since being called up, lefthander Caleb Smith allowed two runs in 3 1⁄3 innings, and although Joe Girardi said it was by design so he could employ a rested bullpen, chances are general manager Brian Cashman will try to add a fifth starter before Monday’s 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline.
Girardi will defer to Cashman on that one. “My job is to manage the people in that room,’’ he said, “and that’s what I’ll focus on. I try not to get caught up in what-ifs because it doesn’t do me any good, and right now we’re playing well and let’s keep it going.’’