ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — When Brett Gardner spun around Monday night to sprint after Brandon Lowe’s long fly ball in the sixth inning, he didn’t have time to think about the steel poles, spaced out every eight feet, that hold up the centerfield fence at Tropicana Field.
Only later, when his wall-crashing catch had helped secure the Yankees’ 4-1 victory over the Rays, did Gardner reflect on what might have been. As it was, his head did in fact smash into the barrier as he leaped up to make the grab, sending him crumpling to the warning track.
Fortunately, that was the part of the wall that was composed of chain-link fence. Because it is somewhat flexible, a more damaging collision was avoided.
“That was a good place to hit my head,” Gardner said, smiling. “And I’ve got a hard head.”
He may not be a starter anymore for the Yankees, but that’s still the same Brett Gardner. And the Yankees were the beneficiary of his daredevil skill set Monday night in relief of the injured Aaron Hicks, who was pulled in the fourth inning because of a tight left hamstring. In addition to the catch, Gardner snapped a 1-1 tie with a two-out RBI single in the fifth, then scored all the way from first on Giancarlo Stanton’s double.
Just doing the usual gritty Gardner things, which used to be treasured by the Yankees. But since the acquisition of Andrew McCutchen on the eve of the Aug. 31 trade deadline, Gardner -- the longest-tenured Yankee -- has been relegated to a bench role. He now sits on the bubble of playoff roster contention.
“Pro, ready,” Aaron Boone said. “I feel like obviously since we’ve gotten healthy, it’s cut into some of his playing time, but there’s no doubt in my mind he’s going to play a big role for us down the stretch and hopefully into the playoffs.”
Much of Gardner’s October future is riding on the health of Hicks, and that’s no guarantee, given his medical history in pinstripes. Hicks tends to get hurt, and Boone's decision to pull him Monday night because of this lingering hamstring issue could develop into a bigger concern. After the game, Hicks flatly said he won't play Tuesday -- he’s scheduled for an MRI -- and the manager was unsure if he’ll be back on the Trop’s artificial turf, which is an unforgiving surface, especially for a centerfielder.
As for Gardner, one of the first things he noted was his regret at getting the opportunity at Hicks’ expense. Gardner talked about what Hicks has meant to the Yankees this season and how they need him back as soon as possible. It’s what we’ve come to anticipate from Gardner and why he’s so respected in that clubhouse.
Gardner said it hasn’t been easy adjusting to the new role, but talking with Neil Walker has helped him prepare for the uncertainty on a daily basis. Typically, he’s thinking of entering a game as maybe a late-inning defensive replacement, but Gardner had a hint he might be needed sooner Monday after he saw Hicks limp a bit after trying to beat out a potential double-play grounder.
His impact was immediate. In the fifth, after Aaron Judge drew a two-out walk and took second on a passed ball, Gardner punched a 2-and-0 sinker into shallow center to drive in the go-ahead run. When he hustled home on Stanton’s double, Luke Voit greeted him at the plate, wrapping his arm around his shoulder before lifting off his helmet for him.
While Gardner was the difference-maker at the plate, what he did in centerfield was as spectacular as it was critical to the Yankees’ holding their lead. The Rays had runners at first and third with two outs when Lowe launched that soaring drive to center. David Robertson, concerned by the deafening contact, turned around and prayed.
“Thank goodness Gardy was out there, because that was an unbelievable play,” Robertson said. “That’s the way he’s always played. He straps it on when he gets between the lines and gives you everything he’s got.”
But now it’s happening much less frequently. Gardner is at risk of fading away by season’s end, and his $12-million option has near zero chance of being picked up for 2019. He’s trying not to think about it.
“I feel like I’ve always been pretty good at focusing on the present,” Gardner said. “That’s a long ways away for me.”
Consider Monday night a flashback to better times for Gardner, when the Yankees couldn’t imagine winning without him.