PHILADELPHIA -- With no more than two games remaining in the Yankees' 2009 campaign, the season has come full circle for Brett Gardner.
Gardner was supposed to be the Yankees' everyday center fielder this year, a spot he claimed in Spring Training and occupied on Opening Day. By the end of April, however, Gardner had lost his job to Melky Cabrera, and in the postseason, the speedster found himself relegated to duties as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement.
With Cabrera off the postseason roster because of a left hamstring injury suffered in Game 4, Gardner found himself back in center for the Yankees in Game 5 and presumably for the rest of the series. On Monday night, he flashed the speed and leather that earned him the job at the start of the year.
The Yankees were already trailing, 6-2, in the fifth when Jayson Werth led off the inning with a drive into the gap in left-center off Alfredo Aceves. Gardner sprinted toward the wall and reached out his right arm to snare the ball just before crashing into the fence. The sensational catch robbed Werth of at least a double.
"I knew he hit it well, and I knew it wasn't going to be out," Gardner said. "It was the point of the game where we were down four runs and couldn't afford to give up a leadoff double. So I tried not to let it drop."
The ball may not have dropped, but Gardner did, crumbling to the warning track after colliding with the wall. After he gathered himself and briefly consulted with the trainer in the outfield, Gardner stayed in the game and insisted afterward that there were no lingering effects.
"I got the wind knocked out of me," Gardner said. "For five or 10 seconds, you feel like you're going to die. And then you're all right."
But while Gardner showcased the defense that earned him an Opening Day start, at the plate, he illustrated why Cabrera eventually took the center-field job from him. Gardner was 0-for-4 and didn't get the ball out of the infield in his first start of the postseason.
A lot of that derives from not getting consistent at-bats over the past month. Coming into Game 5, Gardner had just five at-bats in the 28 days since the end of the regular season.
"That's part of the game and something I have to deal with," Gardner said. "It's obviously not the easiest thing in the world, but I should have been more aggressive tonight. It's something I can learn from."
Of course, it doesn't help that those at-bats are coming against Cliff Lee, who entered the game with the best ERA in postseason history for a pitcher with as many as 30 innings. In his three at-bats against Lee, Gardner quickly found himself in two-strike counts and on the defensive.
Fellow outfielder Johnny Damon expects Gardner to be back in rhythm at the plate by Game 6.
"Hopefully, Brett's got a taste for what at-bats in the World Series are like now, and he'll be better," Damon said. "It just seems like his timing is a little off."
It was certainly bad timing for the injury to Cabrera, who was 8-for-23 with four RBIs in the Yankees' past seven postseason games. Filling in for a hot hitter motivates Gardner even more to help bring a World Series trophy back to the Bronx.
"I hate that for [Cabrera] and for our team, because he's a big part of the team, and for it to happen here [in the Series], that's not what anybody hopes for," Gardner said. "I'll do what I can to try and fill in for him and contribute."
Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.