Gardner grows into starting role for 2010
After tough '09, outfielder worked hard to earn spot in lineup
TAMPA, Fla. -- Given what Brett Gardner's intentions were upon arrival in camp, it was a positive sign that he walked through the clubhouse doors this week and saw his name on a lineup that may very closely resemble the Yankees' Opening Night club for April 4.
The card posted on the wall of the Spring Training complex listed Gardner batting ninth and playing center field, and though a position change may be in order before the Yankees don their road grays at Fenway Park, all indications are that Gardner has secured his place in the batting order.
"To be honest, I really don't think too much about it," Gardner said. "It's March 18. We've still got a couple of weeks to go. I didn't hear anything from anybody that it's going to be the lineup, so for me it's just a matter of working to earn that spot."
Gardner, 26, is no stranger to camp competition. He beat Melky Cabrera to serve as New York's Opening Day center fielder last season only to lose the job after a slow start, then fractured his left thumb in July, an injury that cost him a month.
Finishing the season in a reserve role, Gardner wrapped up hitting .270 with three home runs -- one of them an inside-the-parker -- 23 RBIs and 26 stolen bases in 108 games. He showed signs of coming out of a spring funk on Wednesday with two hits against the Phillies, including a stand-up triple, and is batting .240 in Grapefruit League play.
"I think it's progressively getting better," manager Joe Girardi said of Gardner's spring. "He got off to kind of a slow start. He's swung the bat the last couple of days better than he had earlier, and that can be pretty normal for a guy."
Girardi had promised that the lineup he trotted out on Tuesday against the Astros would closely resemble the one he projects to use for the opener in Boston, and on Thursday, he confirmed that Gardner would be the favorite to dig in for that game.
"He's a guy that we think has the ability to play every day, and we think he has to show it," Girardi said.
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Once the Yankees didn't re-sign Johnny Damon and spoke highly of believing Gardner could be their answer in either left field or center field, Gardner felt as though he had something to prove as camp opened.
Given the interrupted nature of his 2009 season, health is first and foremost, but he also understood that there were aspects of his game that he needed to further hone.
"Last year was great. We won a World Series, and it was the most fun seven or eight months of my life," Gardner said. "But for me, on a personal level, it was a little bit frustrating at times because of the injury, winning a starting job out of Spring Training and getting off to a slow start.
"To help this team, I know there's a lot of things I need to work on and improvements I need to make. I'm trying to work on those adjustments."
Gardner is working with hitting coach Kevin Long on taking more swings in advantageous counts and trying to stay out of two-strike situations, and he made it a point all winter and this spring to improve his bunting game.
To get a head start, he found a batting cage near his South Carolina home during the winter and set a pitching machine on a timer, dropping bunts every six to eight seconds to get more practice in a shorter amount of time.
"I used to do it a lot, and my last few years in the Minor Leagues, I didn't do it as much," he said. "I kind of got away from it more than I should have, because I was trying to focus on my swing and take advantage of every at-bat I had.
"It was something I thought would always be there for me, and since I wasn't doing it as much, I lost my confidence in it. It's just a matter of getting my reps in to get that confidence back so I feel like I can do it a lot when I want to."
Two of Gardner's hits this spring have been bunt hits, so the work appears to be paying dividends. Yet whether Girardi will use Gardner in center field, as he did on Wednesday, or play Curtis Granderson there remains to be seen.
Randy Winn is also in camp and a lock to make the team, though it appears that he will serve more of a fourth outfielder's role, and Jamie Hoffmann and Marcus Thames are competing more to be the 25th man on the roster.
In any event, Gardner has been working during batting practice and games to play the angles in the more unfamiliar corner position. He feels confident that if he happens to be standing in front of the Green Monster on April 4, he will be able to play the position passably.
"It's a spot on the field and a spot in the lineup, so for me, it doesn't matter where I'm playing," he said. "I'm probably more comfortable in center field because I played there so much more, but I feel like I can do pretty well out there in left. I still have a lot of room for improvement, and that only comes with working on it."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.