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Gardner finds a niche and runs with it

Gardner finds a niche and runs with it

MINNEAPOLIS -- Brett Gardner grabbed his helmet and trotted out to first base as a pinch-runner, and every single one of the 50,006 pairs of eyes in Yankee Stadium on Friday evening should have known what was coming next.

The 26-year-old Gardner won the starting center-field job during Spring Training on the merits of all of his talents, but for the purposes of the Yankees' postseason run, it is his basestealing ability that makes him a most valuable weapon.

Sure enough, Gardner was soon on the move, sliding in with a 10th-inning stolen base. But the game gives and it also takes away, as Gardner was later doubled off of third base on a play that became a footnote an inning later, when Mark Teixeira homered to win Game 2 of the American League Division Series, 4-3, over the Twins.

Pulse
Yankees at a glance
2009 record: 103-59
2008 record: 89-73
AL champions
World Series matchup:
Phillies at Yankees
Postseason tix: Information

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
Girardi: Confident in moves
Vet quartet: On the verge
Damon: Got his groove back
Teixeira: D offsets slump
Rivera: Has no equal
Robertson: Invaluable
Jeter: Legend grows
Teixeira: Dependable
Girardi: Fresh cup o' Joe
Damon: What, me worry?
Rivera: Stoic and steady
Gardner: Finds his niche
Teixeira: Fully adjusted
Hughes: Difference-maker
Chamberlain: Happy in 'pen
Jeter: Ready to lead
Sabathia: Deserves Game 1
Swisher: A year wiser
A-Rod: Nothing to lose

"I'm sure there were a lot of happy people in the building -- the 25 of us, the coaches and about 50,000 people," Gardner said. "But yeah, I was obviously pretty happy to see that."

For the moment, Gardner owns a job description eerily similar to the one Dave Roberts occupied with the Red Sox in 2004 -- designated basestealer. The Yankees seem set with their starting outfield of Johnny Damon in left, Melky Cabrera in center and Nick Swisher in right.

Gardner is the speed weapon of choice off the bench for manager Joe Girardi, who leans on Jerry Hairston Jr. when he needs versatility and Eric Hinske when his club is trying to pop a quick homer.

"He is a force off the bench, there is no doubt about that," Girardi said of Gardner. "He creates a lot of problems. He changes the way that pitchers look at the runner, where their focus goes, the way the defense plays.

"There's a big difference when he's out there. Wherever he is, he's a valuable asset when he's on base. It does give you late-inning matchups that you really like."

As Gardner showed in Game 2, swiping second base easily off the Twins' battery of Joe Nathan and Joe Mauer before moving up to third base on a throwing error, the formula works. The only difficult part is never knowing when -- or if -- his ability to run will be called into play.

"I never really look to the future and think about what's going to happen," Gardner said. "I just look at what's going on right now. This is a silly game that we play sometimes, so whatever they ask me to do, I'll be ready to do it, and I'm looking forward to the opportunity."

Gardner could have been disappointed after losing the starting center-field job to Cabrera after a hard-fought spring battle, but he took the bounce in stride and never sulked.

"Obviously, Melky has been playing well and he's had a good season," Gardner said. "We've been pulling for each other since Day 1, even in Spring Training. There's no point for us not to be -- we've done pretty well together."

Gardner also missed more than a month after suffering a fractured left thumb on a July 25 slide, finishing the season batting .270 with three homers, 26 stolen bases and 23 RBIs in 108 games. Over the past 50 years, only two other Yankees rookies had at least 26 steals in a season -- Alfonso Soriano (43 in 2001) and Willie Randolph (37 in 1976).

"For me, it couldn't have gone any better," Gardner said. "You can sit around and say, 'I wish I would have hit better or hit more home runs' or whatever. From the first day of Spring Training, our goal was to make it to the postseason. We won 103 games and had a great season."

The individual offensive numbers probably aren't what might be expected when you think of the traditional sequence of the upper-echelon Yankees center fielders -- Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Bobby Murcer, Bernie Williams.

Truth be told, Gardner probably fits more into the Mickey Rivers variety, but there is no shame in that.

Rivers contributed plenty to the late-1970s Yankees clubs that celebrated World Series titles in the renovated Yankee Stadium, and Gardner can only dream that he will have some impact on raising a flag in the first season of the new Cathedral across the street.

"In my first full season in the big leagues, I'm in the playoffs, and it doesn't get any better than that -- whether I'm playing every day or not," Gardner said. "To be alongside all of these guys and have gone through what we're going through, I couldn't be happier."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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