The rookie outfielder took away a possible home run with one of the team's best catches of the season, threw out a runner at home plate and added a game-tying double on a banner evening, helping the Yankees post a 3-2 victory over the Orioles on Friday at Yankee Stadium.
The 25-year-old Gardner has not had as many opportunities at the Major League level this season as the Yankees might have liked to offer him, but he has attempted to make do with what he was given. Gardner struggled offensively in a midsummer promotion before coming back to the big leagues in late August, when the Yankees decided to rethink using Melky Cabrera as their starting center fielder.
"Any time you can come out and contribute, both with the bat and on defense, that's what you want to do," Gardner said.
Though Johnny Damon has received most of the playing time in center field down the stretch as the Yankees fight long mathematical odds in hopes of making the postseason, Gardner has continued to work on mechanical adjustments, squaring more even with the pitcher and doing away with a stride.
"He's changed his stance a little bit, and that's something [hitting coach] Kevin Long has done a nice job with him," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Obviously, there's a lot of things this young man can do. His defense was excellent -- throwing a guy out at home play, robbing a home run. He was a big part of this game tonight."
Gardner's excellent defensive play came in the fourth inning, when he raced back to the center-field wall and took away a Luke Scott home run. Gardner leapt at the wall and brought the ball back in, crumpling on the warning track. The sellout crowd of 54,136 offered Gardner a standing ovation when a replay was shown on the video screen in right-center field, and starter Carl Pavano raised his right fist in celebration.
"That was an amazing play," Pavano said. "I thought it went out. He kind of paused a little bit and had his head down, so I was thinking it was a home run. Obviously, it was a pleasant surprise. That was an unbelievable play."
Kicking off a weekend of events as they bid farewell to their home since 1923, the Yankees took a lead against Baltimore right-hander Radhames Liz in the fifth inning. Damon stroked a one-out single, moved to third on a Derek Jeter hit and then scored as Liz uncorked a wild pitch to give New York its first lead of the evening.
That put Pavano in line for his fourth victory, his workload completed after five innings of two-run, six-hit ball in his sixth start since rejoining the Yankees. The right-hander walked one and struck out two, starting for the final time at the ballpark.
"I feel pretty good," Pavano said. "Obviously, I'd like to go deeper into games, and those decisions are up to the manager, and I haven't been able to do that. To go out there and be able to keep us in the ballgame, that's my job."
New York fell into a 2-0 hole as Pavano allowed runs in the first two frames on an Aubrey Huff RBI single and a Lou Montanez sacrifice fly. There could have been more damage, but Gardner threw out Nick Markakis trying to score a second run on Huff's single with a strong throw from center field that hopped right to catcher Ivan Rodriguez.
Two Yankees runs in the third inning tied the game, as Cano connected on a full-count offering for a solo home run, his 14th, and Gardner connected on a run-scoring double up the gap in left-center field, bringing home Rodriguez and tying the game.
With Pavano done after five innings, left-hander Phil Coke extended his scoreless streak to 10 2/3 innings to open his Major League career -- throwing perhaps his hardest since returning from the disabled list -- and Brian Bruney struck out both batters he faced.
Damaso Marte hurled a scoreless seventh inning before Joba Chamberlain -- with his father, Harlan, looking on from the stands -- struck out the side in the eighth inning.
"It's been outstanding, and we've got a lot of good arms," Girardi said. "I actually like having 12 guys in the bullpen -- you can mix and match a little more. If I was Commissioner, I might expand the roster to about 32 or 33 guys."
Running onto the Yankee Stadium field for one of his final appearances at the ballpark, Mariano Rivera worked out of two-out trouble in the ninth inning for his 37th save in 38 opportunities. Already projected to pitch the final inning of Sunday's Yankee Stadium finale, win or lose, Rivera induced Brian Roberts to pop out to end this one, leaving the potential go-ahead run on base.
Continuing to stave off mathematical elimination, the Yankees have won six of their past seven games to complete their final homestand at Yankee Stadium before moving to the north side of 161st Street for the 2009 campaign. But the odds are extremely long -- any combination of two Red Sox victories and Yankees losses will seal New York's first missed postseason since 1993.
More and more, the fans appear to be treasuring the moments in a grander scale. Jeter made his trademark defensive play from across his body opening the ninth inning, throwing out Adam Jones, and those who remained broke into a chant of the longtime shortstop's name.
"I think they understand what's going on," Girardi said. "Yankees fans are very knowledgeable, understanding that there's two more regular-season games. This has been the house of numerous championships. This place meant a lot to the history of baseball and the history of this country, I think, because of what happened here. I think that people appreciate it and everyone wants a piece of it."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.