TORONTO — A player who started the season very much an afterthought ranks high on the list of players the Yankees can least afford to lose down the stretch.
Brett Gardner is 36, but with the continued attrition that injuries have taken on the outfielders, his value has never been higher. Fortunately for the Yankees, he has been equal to the task.
Gardner did it again Saturday, contributing two home runs and a double, driving in five runs and making a Gold Glove-caliber catch to steal an extra-base hit as the Yankees beat the Blue Jays, 13-3, in front of 26,308 at Rogers Centre.
“He just continues to play on both sides of the ball so well,” Aaron Boone said. “He hasn’t stopped being a good player. We wouldn’t be this well off without him, that’s for sure.”
James Paxton, making a strong push to be the Yankees' Game 1 starter in the ALDS, won for the ninth straight start. He wasn’t as good as he had been in many of his other outings in that streak but grinded through, allowing one run, five hits and two walks in five innings. Paxton (14-6, 3.88) has a 2.50 ERA and 0.96 WHIP in his last nine starts.
Paxton had two rough innings, throwing 31 pitches in the first and 34 in the fifth, but needed only 36 pitches to get through the second, third and fourth. Entering the fifth, he hadn't allowed a run in his last 18 2/3 innings.
“Higgy did a great job behind the plate mixing up pitches,” Paxton said of Kyle Higashioka. “Didn’t have a lot in the tank today. Didn’t have the sharpest stuff but was able to make pitches when we needed to to get out of innings.”
And the game by Gardner? Paxton, in his first season as a Yankee, shook his head. “He is killing it,” he said. “He’s been great for us all year long, in the outfield and at the plate. Really doing it all, and that’s not even talking about his leadership skills and how great he is in this clubhouse.”
When the Yankees signed Gardner to a one-year, $7.5 million free agent deal in the offseason, they intended to use him as a reserve outfielder. Instead, injuries forced him into everyday duties, and he has had a career season.
His two homers Saturday gave him 25, four more than his previous high. He also robbed Danny Jansen with a leaping catch as he banged into the wall in left-center for the first out of the fifth.
So what did he enjoy more, the two-homer day or the acrobatic catch?
“That’s a tough question,” he said with a slight grin. “If you said one homer and a catch, I’d probably go with the catch. But I’ll take the two homers, I guess.”
Of the power surge at 36, Gardner said he’s made “a little change in the approach and the way I prepare.”
“I take my ‘A’ swing more often,” he said. “[Don’t] worry about, especially early in the count, just putting the ball in play [like I did] for the first eight or 10 years of my career, but really focus on driving the baseball. Some days are better than others.”
Thanks to Gardner's five RBIs, the Yankees (98-52) already were ahead 6-0 when the Blue Jays scored their only run off Paxton. Gleyber Torres (No. 37) and Luke Voit (No. 21) hit back-to-back homers in the sixth and pinch hitter Mike Ford (No. 11) gave the Yankees their fifth home run of the day in the ninth.
The Yankees have an MLB-best 285 homers in 150 games, 18 more than the major league record of 267 they set last year. The Twins, who broke that record earlier this season before the Yankees passed them, have 283 in 148 games.
The Yankees lead the Astros by one game and the Dodgers by two games in the battle for MLB’s best record.
They had 19 hits, four by DJ LeMahieu, who also was robbed of a hit in his first at-bat.
After a double by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. put runners on second and third with one out in the first, Paxton got Vlad Guerrero Jr. to pop up and struck out Teoscar Hernandez to end the inning.
The Yankees took the lead for good in the second on Gardner's RBI double but couldn't take further advantage of a second-and-third, none-out situation. Voit's ground-rule double to right made it 2-0 in the third, but with runners on second and third and one out, Torres was doubled off third when second baseman Brandon Drury caught Gio Urshela's line drive.
Gardner led off the fourth with a bomb to right-center, and his three-run homer in the fifth made it 6-0. Torres' two-run homer and Voit's solo shot in the sixth gave the Yankees a 9-1 lead. Ford batted for Voit in the ninth and hit a two-run homer to make it 13-1.
It was an impressive game for the Yankees after their disappointing, sloppy loss in 12 innings the night before.
“I feel like they’ve done that all year,” Boone said. “When we’ve hit a bump in the road or had a bad game, they’re really good at turning the page. They did again [today].”