The Yankees' Brett Gardner scores a run past Tugers catcher...

The Yankees' Brett Gardner scores a run past Tugers catcher Alex Avila during the second inning. (May 2, 2011) Credit: Getty Images

BALTIMORE -- The Yankees feel no shame about what they are. They never have.

For all the angst about their reliance on the home run, they have continued to slug it out, ignoring all the predictions that they won't be able to continue doing that in the postseason. Based on traditional thinking, the Yankees' homer-hitting ways won't cut it in the playoffs, when the pitching improves.

Which is why the return of speedster Brett Gardner might prove to be a critical addition as the Yankees begin the ALDS Sunday night against the Orioles.

In Gardner, the Yankees regained one of their few speed threats, an insurance policy to guard against nights when the homer doesn't come so easily.

Specifically, Gardner gives the Yankees a weapon on the bases that Joe Girardi can deploy in the situations that often determine who wins tight postseason games. It's a weapon that grows in importance in the later innings, when 90 feet can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

"Sometimes those things can show up more in a short series because there's so much pressure on every game, and there's a lot of times these guys are very tight, and that one run could mean the difference in a series or a lot of different things,'' Girardi said. "Yeah, speed is extremely important during the course of the season, but you don't measure one game the same, and that's why I think people talk about it a lot more.''

It has been eight years since Red Sox speedster Dave Roberts changed the course of history with one well-timed stolen base in the ninth inning of ALCS Game 4 in 2004. With the Yankees on the verge of a four-game sweep, Roberts' steal began Boston's incredible comeback (and the Yankees' infamous collapse) and remains the ultimate example of what speed can mean in October.

Though the Yankees aren't expected to announce the postseason roster until Sunday morning, Gardner appears to be in the mix for a spot, even after missing almost the entire season with a right elbow injury.

"I expected to be able to make it back before the end of the season all along,'' he said. "Not a lot of people did, and rightfully so. But the bottom line is I'm just happy to be healthy. I'm happy to be back on the field. Whatever they ask me to do, I'll be prepared for it.''

Gardner played in only 16 games, hitting .323, but his value might be better reflected in what he's done on the basepaths. He has swiped 137 bases in five seasons, with an exceptional success rate of 82 percent. Those are odds that Girardi will have in the back of his mind if he finds himself in need of Gardner's services.

Gardner insists he'll be ready. "There's a lot more at stake in every aspect of the game this time of the year, but I don't really think of it like that,'' he said. "I don't let it affect me.''

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