BOSTON -- All winter and all spring, Brett Gardner's skeptics have doubted his ability to hit. They have doubted his ability to start in the Majors.
But never have they doubted his ability to run.
Fittingly, then, it was Gardner's legs -- and not his bat -- that provided one of Opening Night's quirkier moments on Sunday: a steal of home in the fourth inning at Fenway Park.
It began with runners on the corners and two outs in the fourth inning, when Derek Jeter broke for second base. Alertly watching the play unfold, Gardner sprinted home as soon as Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez snapped off a throw to second base. By the time the Red Sox's defense could react, Gardner had already crossed the plate to give the Yankees a 5-1 cushion.
"I wouldn't say it's ever a called play," Gardner said. "I had an idea that [Jeter] might be going, and if he went and [Martinez] threw to second base, I was going to go."
That the Red Sox roared back to claim a 9-7 victory could not be blamed on Gardner, who finished 2-for-4 with the steal, the run scored and one ultimately harmless throwing error. Most important for Gardner in this early stage of the season is to shrug off his status as the lineup's only unproven hitter -- and he did that as best he could on Opening Night.
When the Yankees opted not to pursue their own free agent, Johnny Damon, on the open market this past offseason, Gardner fell into the role of starting left fielder. He had never been more than a light-hitting backup in the past, and he will almost certainly never bring the type of daily fireworks for which Damon is known.
But Gardner can hit, as he proved with his eight-pitch at-bat in the second. He can play a stellar left field. And he can run.
He can most definitely run.
Opening Night notes
Double your pleasure
Brett Gardner is the first Yankee to steal home since Alex Rodriguez on July 31, 2004, against Baltimore. That was also the back end of a double steal.
"I saw him take off," Jeter said. "We talked about it last year, that if we were in that position, he'd take off if he got the chance. You never know. We want to be aggressive on the bases. Today, the opportunity presented itself, and we took advantage of it."
For Gardner, the steal of home was more than a simple dash. He had to be aware that Jeter was running. He had to notice that third baseman Adrian Beltre was playing off the bag, allowing the speedster to wander further down the line. And he had to make a split-second decision, tearing toward home plate as soon as Martinez committed to the throw.
It was not a called play, and neither Jeter nor manager Joe Girardi knew that Gardner might sprint home. But neither was surprised at Gardner's aggressiveness.
"Brett was just going," Girardi said. "He took advantage of a situation."
Gardner hopes to take advantage of every situation that he can.
Though Gardner is, in title, the starting left fielder, Girardi has not dismissed the notion of starting Randy Winn against lefties. Doing so would reduce Gardner to a more familiar part-time role, without a real crack at the starting job.
Gardner will have a better idea on Tuesday, when lefty Jon Lester starts for the Red Sox. After Sunday's performance, the fleet-footed outfielder seems deserving of a spot on the lineup card.
"I feel just as comfortable against lefties as I do against righties," Gardner said. "Hopefully, I'll be in there."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.