CLEVELAND – Aaron Boone – and Joe Girardi before him – oftentimes in praising Brett Gardner would bring up certain intangibles possessed by the veteran outfielder.
"One of the heartbeats of our club," is a common Boone refrain regarding the 37-year-old outfielder.
Gardner produced on and off the field Tuesday.
Besides going 3-for-5 with a homer and three RBIs in a 12-3 victory over Cleveland in Game 1, the longest-tenured Yankee pulled Gleyber Torres aside before the game.
Torres, 23, struggled throughout the 60-game regular season, hitting .243 with three homers and .724 OPS in 42 games, even spending a short stint (Aug. 21-Sept. 5) on the injured list with a left hamstring strain. Defensively, Torres was a mess in his return to shortstop, committing a team-high nine errors, Overall, it was a frustrating follow-up season to Torres’ 2019, when he played a solid second base and was a star at the plate, hitting .278 with 38 homers and an .871 OPS
So what was Gardner’s message to his younger teammate?
"Before the game, I had a really good conversation with Gardner," Torres said. "He gave me really good advice. Basically, he told me during the season we didn’t do a really good job as players. I felt the same way. But he also told me baseball gives you another opportunity, so we are starting new games…this is the time we need to do the job for the team."
A clean slate the Yankees' up-and-down the roster mostly took advantage of in their dominating Game 1 victory over Cleveland and its ace, presumed AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber. None more so than Torres who, perhaps put at ease somewhat by Gardner’s comments, went 4-for-4 with a homer, walk and three RBIs.
"When GT is doing his thing, he’s one of the best baseball players in the game,’’ said Aaron Judge, whose two-run homer in the first off Bieber jump-started the Yankees. "He’s 23 years old and comes up in big situations. It’s fun to see him back on track and doing his thing."
Torres, like many of his teammates, slumped down the stretch as the Yankees lost six of their last eight.
"We're focused," said Torres, who finished the regular season in a 6-for-33 skid. "As a team, we compete every night and right now it's our time to win all the games... It's really good energy in the dugout [and] clubhouse, and we come to the field and try to damage."
Torres, batting seventh Tuesday, reached on an infield single in his first at-bat.
Before drawing a walk – and later scoring on Gardner’s double in the fourth – Torres made an alert play in the field (though ultimately Cleveland scored in the inning).
In the bottom of the third, the game still very much in doubt, Delino DeShields singled and went to second on Gerrit Cole's wild pitch. Kyle Higashioka’s throw to second sailed into center and had Torres not deked DeShields by pretending as if he had caught the ball, the runner would have cruised into third. Instead, DeShields stayed put and Aaron Hicks retrieved it in time to keep DeShields at second base (DeShields scored on Jose Ramirez’s two-out double).
Torres brought Bieber’s mostly miserable first playoff start to a close with two outs in the fifth, battling back after falling into an 0-and-2 hole and crushing a two-run homer, on a 2-and-2 fastball, to left, the two-run shot making it 7-2.
Torres had an RBI single in the four-run seventh and reached base for a fifth time in the ninth on an infield single.
"I was really focused," Torres said. "The last couple days I watched videos on their pitcher and the bullpen. My mentality was really good. And then Gardner gave me advice and I felt really good after that."
Torres’ standout performance surprised no one in a Yankees uniform. Not after watching what he did in his debut season of 2018 – when he hit .271 with 24 homers and an .820 OPS in finishing third in AL Rookie of the Year voting – and his 2019 encore.
"The more on the line, the more the stakes are, I think he likes that,’’ Boone said. "I feel like he’s in a good place right now."