LF uses energy, intensity, experience to paint playoff picture for team's youth
By Ben Weinrib
CLEVELAND -- After 10 seasons with the Yankees, Brett Gardner has somehow flown under the radar this season with Baby Bombers such as Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez stepping into the spotlight.
Not only is Gardner the longest-tenured Yankee -- the only current Yankees position player to have played at the original Yankee Stadium -- he's one of just four current Yanks, along with CC Sabathia, David Robertson and Adam Warren -- who were around for the franchise's last playoff win in 2012.
But Gardner, 34, is set to play a significant role in New York's postseason run after coming off a season in which he hit a career-high 21 home runs from the leadoff spot.
Already an important figure in the clubhouse, Gardner's postseason got off to a hot start with three big runs and his first career postseason home run in the Yankees' 8-4 win over the Twins in Wednesday's American League Wild Card Game.
"I think he's been really important on both fronts there," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We look at the game that he had yesterday, 20-plus homers from the leadoff spot. I think it was really close to 100 runs scored. The defense that he plays, the energy, the intensity that he brings every day on the field.
"Then I just think the personality he brings in the clubhouse is great. He'll stir it up and have some fun, but he also expects everyone to be prepared every day to play, and I think that's a great mixture."
After the Yankees fell behind, 3-0, in the first inning, Gardner worked a six-pitch leadoff walk and came around to score on Didi Gregorius' game-tying home run. Gardner battled off a high-and-tight fastball from Twins starter Ervin Santana in the second inning before serving the following pitch into the second deck in right field to give his team its first lead. And for good measure, he sent a single to left in the fourth and scored two pitches later on Judge's first career postseason home run.
The outing was a welcome change for Gardner, who had slashed .203/.243/.217 in 76 career postseason plate appearances prior to Tuesday. Gardner hasn't concerned himself with his postseason numbers, though, instead focusing on helping his team translate its improved play into more October wins.
While the homers are a nice bonus, they're really a reflective of improved contact -- Gardner's hitting harder and farther this season. He hit 31 percent of his balls at 95 mph or harder in 2017, up from 24 percent last year, and saw a 1.4-percent increase in barrels per batted ball, to 3.8 percent. His average batted ball traveled up to 167 feet this season, compared to 142 feet in 2016.
The entire Yankees team is hitting for more power this season, too, with 85 home runs between Judge and Sanchez alone. The team's 241 home runs are the fourth-most in a single season in franchise history, four short of the 2012 record.
As the team has gotten younger, Gardner has found himself in more of a leadership role. Recently, he talked with the younger players about how things change in the playoffs, but he said that the high-pressure games in New York already prepare them for that. And considering the team's power and how prepared it appears for the postseason, Gardner said he sees parallels between this group and the Yankees' last championship team, in 2009.
"I'd like to think that we've got a pretty high-powered offense," Gardner said. "For the most part, we've done a good job of scoring runs, and that's one thing that I remember about 2009: we scored a lot of runs."
Ben Weinrib is a reporter for MLB.com based in Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter at @benweinrib. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.