Gardner's hustle sets comeback in motion
Speedster legs out infield single to start game-winning rally
ARLINGTON -- The Yankees were essentially done.
After all, they trailed by four runs in the eighth inning and Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson was in full control, having surrendered just four hits, with the Yankees' lone run coming on a solo homer from Robinson Cano in the seventh.
But then it all changed for the Yankees, starting with a hustle play by Brett Gardner to lead off the eighth inning with an infield single. It turned out to be a game-changing play from a player with game-changing speed, as Gardner simply beat Wilson to first base, sliding head first to beat the throw from first baseman Jorge Cantu by just a foot.
It started an avalanche for the Yankees, as the next six batters reached base to help New York score five runs and complete a near-impossible comeback for a 6-5 win over Texas in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on Friday.
"I was just trying to get something going," Gardner said. "I was able to get on base in the eighth, and then we had six straight guys get on base without getting out, so it was great. We keep the line moving, and we were able to score five runs."
So while Gardner's play was just one key moment in the inning, his teammates pointed to that infield hit as the turning point for the Yankees, as it set the stage for what was to come.
"It all starts with Gardy busting down the line," said reliever Joba Chamberlain, who pitched a scoreless fifth after ace CC Sabathia struggled. "C.J. pitched his tail off, but at the end of day, we continued to play our game and it all started right there with that hustle play."
Even Alex Rodriguez, who brought the Yankees within one run of the Rangers with his two-run single later in the inning, felt Gardner's hit was the biggest one for the Yankees.
"You can't say enough about the at-bats Gardy had, and that was a huge play and obviously that started everything," Rodriguez said. "The one thing is from one at-bat, from one pitch, momentum can change, and I thought the big momentum-changer for us was Gardy's slide at first base."
It was the type of play Gardner has been known for all season, as he entered the year as a question mark in a lineup full of superstars. But he emerged as one of the club's best players with his speed and ability to get on base, as he led Yankees regulars with an impressive .383 on-base percentage and 47 steals.
But in this case, he wouldn't have been on base if it weren't for his speed and his heads-up decision to slide to avoid a potential tag from Wilson.
"For a lot of guys, that's not going to be a close play," Gardner said. "But that's just the way I've played the game, and by playing that way, it's probably the reason why I'm here today. If I would've gone in standing up I would've been out. A lot of people might not feel that way, so that's fine."
The play didn't surprise Wilson, however, as he knew plenty about Gardner's speed and compared him to Mariners speedster Ichiro Suzuki.
"He's really fast," Wilson said. "That's what he's good at. That's why he wears his pants up, he's got fast calves ... I don't know what to say. He puts the ball on the ground like Ichiro and runs real fast. That's his game. It's almost funny, because it's like counter-intuitive you want him to hit the ball in the air, right? I don't know, back to the drawing board on that."
Now, thanks to Gardner's key hit, it really is back to the drawing board for the Rangers, with the club still searching for its first postseason win at home after its heartbreaking loss on Friday.
"It's a big win for the Yankees," Gardner said. "I'm not sure how [the Rangers are] feeling, and I'm not really worried. I'm not feeling sorry for them. It was a tough game and every game we play against them is tough like a Game 7 of the World Series, so I'm sure it'll be the same way tomorrow night."
Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.