Yankees

Hartnett: Red-Hot Gardner Carrying Yankees In Improbable Playoff Chase

Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner connects for a home run in the sixth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on August 3, 2014. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner connects for a home run in the sixth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on August 3, 2014. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

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By Sean Hartnett
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Where would the Yankees be without the incredible contributions of all-action outfielder Brett Gardner? Probably closer to the cellar-dwelling Boston Red Sox than in the hunt for the fiercely competitive American League East and wild card spots.

After Sunday night’s 8-7 victory over the Red Sox, the 57-53 Yankees now stand five games behind the AL East-leading Baltimore Orioles and only trail the Toronto Blue Jays by 1.5 games in the hunt for the second wild card.

Befitting his surname, Gardner is absolutely raking at the dish. On Sunday night, Gardner delivered the eventual game-winning solo home run in the top of the sixth inning off Craig Breslow. The fleet-footed leadoff man exited Fenway with three hits in four at-bats – a single, a double and a homer — recording three RBIs and one walk in the series finale.

Gardner has enjoyed a sudden power surge in 2014. He has smashed five homers and driven in seven RBIs over his past six games. His 15 dingers this season is a career best. Same goes for his .467 slugging percentage and .830 on-base plus slugging. With 50 RBIs, he’s three shy from setting a new career high. He is on-pace to finish 2014 with 22 homers, 74 RBIs, 103 runs and 27 stolen bases.

The Yankees have been haunted by the injury bug at every turn. Gardner has injected constant vibrancy into a team that should have been dead in the water by August.

CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova have been shut down for the remainder of the season. Staff ace Masahiro Tanaka hasn’t pitched since suffering a partial UCL tear in July, and probably won’t rejoin the Bombers until the tail end of the regular season. Sunday’s starter David Phelps exited after two innings due a combination of ineffectiveness and elbow inflammation. Whether or not the injury is serious, Phelps has been persevering through the pain (Yankees manager Joe Girardi has admitted that Phelps was pitching through discomfort).

Switch-hitting sluggers Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira have missed a combined 61 games this season. Beltran endured hard times during May and June but has caught fire of late, extending his hitting streak to 10 games on Sunday. During this streak, Beltran has lifted his batting average 30 points from .220 to .250. Teixeira is yet to find his groove.

Gardner has unquestionably been the Bombers’ most valuable player, especially considering Tanaka’s recent absence. He leads qualified Yankees in batting average (.284), hits (113 tied with Ellsbury), triples (6), runs scored (70), walks (47), on-base percentage (.363), slugging (.467) and on-base plus slugging (.830.) He is yet to be charged with an error through 105 games played in the outfield.

Only fifteen major league position players have a higher WAR (wins above replacement) than Gardner’s 4.0. He is on-track to record a WAR of 5.9. Since 2010, Gardner’s 19.6 WAR is the ninth-highest of all MLB outfielders.

Now, the big test comes for Gardner and the Yanks.

The rolling Tigers invade Yankee Stadium on Monday. Detroit has won four of its past five games. In four straight days, the Tigers will unleash their fearsome foursome of Max Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello on Yankees bats. It could turn out to be the most revealing series of the Bombers’ season.

Curiously, Gardner’s personal trophy case is bare aside from an AL Player of the Week Award he earned last June. Despite his all-world fielding ability, Gardner is yet to win a Gold Glove award. He has twice received Fielding Bible awards as a left fielder.

Perhaps Gardner will finally get his due when it comes to traditional award voting. It’s possible that the 30-year-old could capture both a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger at season’s end.

Back in February, Gardner agreed to a four-year, $52 million extension. It includes a 2019 team option of $12.5 million. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman broke a longstanding team policy by signing Gardner to an extension before free agency.

With each passing day, that extension is looking like an absolute bargain for the Bombers.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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