Gardner makes fast impression in camp
Prospect pleases teammates, rattles pitchers with speed
TAMPA, Fla. -- A bunt?
A bunt to start an intrasquad game against Kei Igawa and what most likely will be the Yankees' Opening Day lineup?
"I was completely surprised," Igawa said. "I never thought he'd bunt to lead off the game. I thought, because I was a new pitcher and he had never seen me pitch before, he would, at least, see one pitch go by."
But the left-handed-hitting Gardner didn't work the count, instead placing a bunt cleanly between Igawa and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz.
"That's part of my game," said the 23-year-old Gardner, who batted .298 and had 58 stolen bases last season in 118 games with Class A Tampa and Double-A Trenton. "I talked to the [coaching staff] before the game and they said to try bunting sometime during the game. I said, 'Hey, I'm facing a lefty right here, so I might as well get it out of the way now.' I'm pretty confident with it and that's one of the main ways I use to get on base. I'm happy the way it worked out."
It might sound outlandish or even a bit bold, but Gardner's actions are indicative of the type of player he is. And it is his energy and effort that make teammates happy to be playing alongside him.
"We weren't surprised at all," said third-base prospect Eric Duncan, who played with Gardner last year at Trenton. "He knows what it takes to be successful on the field, and his work ethic and energy translates to the rest of the team. He's going hard all the time, sliding headfirst into first base, stretching doubles into triples. That type of play resonates through the dugout, and the other guys want to put forth that same type of effort."
Standing at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Gardner doesn't come across as imposing a player as his locker neighbor in training camp, Alex Rodriguez (6-foot-3, 225), does, but that hasn't prevented the College of Charleston graduate to aspire past expectations.
Undrafted after his junior season, Gardner, whose dad played with the Phillies, overcame doubters to be the Yankees' third-round pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. Because of his blazing speed and overwhelming talent, Baseball America rated him as the fastest baserunner and best defensive outfielder in the organization. The lefty utilizes his speed to change the game in various ways, both on offense and defense.
He proved that after he reached base in the first inning against Igawa. Outfield prospect Bronson Sardinha came up to bat after Gardner and saw a full plate of fastballs strictly because of the Igawa's fear that Gardner would attempt to steal second base.
"I was talking to Sardinha later and was asking him what Igawa's breaking-ball stuff was like, and Sardinha said he never saw any," Duncan said. "I'm sure Igawa was cognizant of his speed on the basepaths. And that's the way he changes the way pitchers think. He makes them quicken up a bit when they go out of the stretch. And, then, if you're following him [in the lineup], you see better pitches because pitchers have to throw types of pitches they wouldn't normally want to toss."
Pitchers love to have Gardner playing the field when they're on the mound, however.
"From an impact standpoint, he's one of those guys you want to go to battle with all the time," said pitching prospect Matt DeSalvo, who played with Gardner last year in Trenton. "He covers so much ground out there that you know you can throw certain pitches with the feeling that he'll be able to get line drives in the gap. If someone does drop one in there, he'll keep a guy at first instead of someone typically stretching it into a double. His speed helps a pitcher out, as well, because if you're in a jam, then maybe you can throw that two-seamer over the plate and get a double play. He's one of those guys that can make things happen in so many ways."
Gardner has taken advantage of his first invite to Major League camp by noticing the way professionals around him like Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon act. And he's also made the most of his time with bench coach Don Mattingly and special instructor Reggie Jackson.
"This has been a pretty cool experience and a great learning environment," said Gardner. "It's something I'll definitely remember and learn from. I've talked to Mattingly about hitting and gotten advice from Reggie about being a professional and making it to the next level. I haven't really talked to the players, but I've learned a lot just from watching how they handle their business and the way they present themselves."
Gardner idolized Pete Rose when he was growing up and emulates the hustle and energy Rose brought to every game. He watched ESPN Classic as often as he could and made sure to catch highlights of baseball's all-time hit king who spent his glory days with the Cincinnati Reds.
"He played the game so hard and gave it everything he had on every play," said Gardner, who scored 59 runs in 55 games with Trenton in 2006. "That's how I am and how I like to play the game. I just go hard all the time. Hopefully, that's something that will be noticed and will take me to the big leagues soon."
If Gardner keeps giving this all-out approach in everything he does, Yankees fans may soon be seeing his hustle and energy in the Bronx.
Chris Girandola is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.