CHICAGO -- As Brett Gardner sprinted along his dirt-covered path to glory, he also screamed aloud, the afternoon’s pent-up frustration shooting forth as if uncorked from a champagne bottle. At Wrigley Field, home of the defending world champions, Gardner stunned the Cubs by ripping a line drive over its ivy-covered rightfield wall, his three-run homer in the ninth delivering an improbable 3-2 win for the Yankees.
As soon as Gardner crossed the plate, he suddenly went airborne to high-five Jacoby Ellsbury, who seemed to anticipate a more earthbound celebration. By then, Gardner was so wired on game-winning adrenaline, it must have felt as if his feet weren’t touching the ground.
“He was drooling coming around the bases,” Chase Headley said. “When he got in the dugout, he was drooling, so he was pretty fired up.’’
After Aroldis Chapman extinguished his former pals in the bottom of the ninth, a more composed Gardner hiked back up to the tiny visitors’ clubhouse and checked his phone messages. One friend’s text instantly made him chuckle.
It read: “That recycling bin must have got you locked in.”
Gardner cracked a smile in passing on the note. Before Friday’s deciding home run, his last meaningful hacks came at the expense of that Yankees’ blue plastic container, which he destroyed during Wednesday night’s comeback win over the Blue Jays in the Bronx. That took Gardner six swings, the death blow coming on an above-the-head ax chop, before he flipped his bat back into the dugout rack.
The poor recycling bin never had a chance.
The Cubs’ Hector Rondon — filling in for the unavailable Wade Davis — was a more challenging foe, and he quickly had Gardner down to his final strike when he took two of the first three pitches. But Gardner fouled off the next two fastballs, watched another one to move the count to 2-and-2, then crushed Rondon’s only slider.
Wrigley had been tormented by fierce winds all day, and yet it was Gardner — not any of the Yankees’ more burly sluggers — who drove the ball over the fence at the biggest moment. He instantly knew it had a chance to clear the rightfield wall.
“I felt pretty good about it,” Gardner said. “Hitting a liner like that, the better shot you have of cutting through the wind.”
Afterward, Gardner joked that he has been hanging out with prolific basher Aaron Judge a little more, saying, “Hopefully he’ll rub off on me.” But going by the recent numbers, maybe Judge already has. Gardner has five home runs and 10 RBIs in his last six games after posting goose eggs in both categories through his first 18.
Unfortunately for him, Judge’s spectacular displays keep knocking Gardner from the headlines. Plus, you can’t make as many witty puns with the name Gardner. He’s not really a back-page guy. What Gardner happens to be is the longest- tenured Yankee — he debuted in 2008 — and he now seems to be finding his stride for one of the sport’s most surprising clubs this season.
Gardner shared his manager’s postgame sentiments that these Yankees have the makings of a special team, based on the never-say-die mojo they’ve shown in recent comebacks against the Orioles (turning a 9-1 deficit into a 14-11 victory last week) and now the Cubs, who were up 2-0 to start the ninth inning. For that reason, Gardner valued this home run, No. 68 of his 10-year career, as among the most meaningful for him personally.
“It’s pretty high up there, man,” he said. “I haven’t hit many, so I can remember almost all of them.”
We’re not sure what was lying around the visitors’ dugout, so it’s a good thing Gardner got to abuse Rondon rather than a portable heater. He previously struck out twice looking, the only measurable plate contribution a fifth-inning walk. But Girardi remembered watching Gardner hit one deep to that same spot during batting practice, and there were other believers.
“That’s what he’s capable with the swing he has,” Judge said. “He might be a smaller guy, but he’s got some pop in there.”
And it showed up Friday at the perfect time.