Aaron Judge could only watch and hope, but he had faith in the 35-year-old sprinting hell-bent toward the right-centerfield wall in the eighth inning Friday night.
Primarily because it was Brett Gardner. And if there was anyone on the Yankees, age be damned, who could get to Francisco Lindor’s deep, sailing fly ball — with the tying run ready to take off from second base and the crowd of 45,015 roaring in his ears — Judge would put his money on Gardner.
“Ten out of 10 times, I know he’s going to make the play,” Judge said of the catch that helped seal the Yankees’ 3-2 win over the Indians at Yankee Stadium. “Where he was positioned, the jump he got, from my view, how he was tracking it down. I knew he had a good bead on it and he saved the game for us right there. He won us the game.”
Aaron Boone wasn’t so sure the ball would be caught. Of course he had confidence in Gardner, but Lindor’s shot was headed for no man’s land, right in front of the Yankees’ bullpen, roughly 390 feet from home plate. And Gardner had a long way to run.
“Once he started tracking it, I felt like he had a chance at it,” Boone said. “But off the bat, when I first looked up, I was a little, ‘Oh, no.’ And to see him on a dead run, when my eyes caught him, that was a good sign. That was a big-time play. He didn’t have to leave his feet or anything like that. But you’re not going to see a lot of better plays, especially in that spot.”
With the warning track fast approaching, Gardner reached up and made the backhanded grab, the ball first smacking the palm of the glove, then nearly trickling out of the webbing as his momentum carried him to the wall. That left Tyler Naquin anchored at second base, and the Indians never threatened again.
“It was a big play,” Gardner said. “Obviously, if I don’t get to it, there’s no telling how the rest of the game unfolds.”
Judge couldn’t stop talking about the catch afterward. When Gardner reeled it in, Judge was at least as excited as the guy who made the grab. On a night that felt like October, Gardner clearly was in his element, as a veteran of 52 postseason games and a World Series winner in 2009.
“It’s extremely tough,” Judge said. “Especially going back, you’re checking the wall at the same time. While you’re looking at the fly ball, you’re thinking of the runner in your head, and you got the crowd cheering. He’s got me in his ear trying to tell him where he’s at, plus you got a plexiglass wall right in front of you. You’re basically running into cement.”
If Aaron Hicks had been healthy, instead of on the injured list with a flexor tendon strain in his right elbow, Gardner never would have been in that spot. For that matter, if Giancarlo Stanton hadn’t been limited to nine games because of his extended stay on the injured list or Judge hadn’t missed two months, where would Gardner have fit on this year’s club?
As it is, Gardner has been right where he should be, the gut-check leader of the American League’s best team. But his presence is not just about the intangibles. He was eight days away from his 36th birthday on Friday night, but only Gleyber Torres (112) and DJ LeMahieu (110) have appeared in more games than Gardner (107) this season, an incredible stat when you think back to his presumed usage after he re-signed on a one-year, $7.5-million deal.
And it’s not merely symbolic. Gardner has 17 homers, 50 RBIs and an .818 OPS, well above his .740 career mark.
It seems as if we go into every year talking about Gardner’s reduced playing time, or the Yankees preserving him for the long haul, and somehow he winds up doing what he always does — showing up in these game-saving scenarios, grinding right to the end.
“There’s just a blue-collar kind of toughness that he plays with that the guys look to,” Boone said. “And that does a really good job of helping set the tone in that room.”
On Friday night, however, this wasn’t about the clubhouse. Gardner was making a difference racing across his familiar Bronx lawn, a place he’s spent the past dozen years patrolling, and this was start No. 61 in centerfield this season — five more than Hicks. Not getting to Lindor’s fly ball wasn’t an option.
“I felt like I got a pretty good jump,” Gardner said. “I was fortunate to get to it.”
The Yankees, as usual, felt lucky to have him.