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Where Brett Gardner goes, Yanks will follow

Outfielder intends to be the catalyst Bombers will need in 2013
03/04/2013 11:42 AM ET
By Jon Lane

Brett Gardner's ability to play small ball will be important for the Yankees.(AP)
The Brett Gardner-Curtis Granderson outfield swap experiment may have prematurely ended once a J.A. Happ pitch shattered Granderson's forearm, but Gardner is leaving little doubt on how big a role he's going to play on the 2013 New York Yankees.

Unlike the Yankees of recent past, Version '13 will need to win games with speed, hit-and-runs, small ball and run prevention. Plan A was to move Granderson to left field to accommodate Gardner's range and defensive strengths, but with Granderson on the shelf until May, manager Joe Girardi was forced to go to Plan B -- or more accurately revert to an alignment utilized in 2011, Gardner's last full season.

"I'm not 100 percent sure, but that's what we've talked about," Girardi said. "We don't really have the chance to work on it. There's a chance I'm going to abandon it."

One idea that could be implemented on Opening Day, April 1 against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium, is Gardner at the top of the order. Girardi won't reveal any specific thoughts about his one-through-nine until he knows for sure when Derek Jeter will be ready for action and cleared for the opener, but Gardner's Spring Training performance has bolstered his case to hit from the top spot -- even at the expense of the Captain. Gardner went 1-for-2 with a walk in Sunday's Grapefruit win over the Red Sox in Fort Myers, Fla., while increasing his hitting streak to six games.

Five players are batting .500 and above, with Gardner's .567 (9-for-16) on top (minimum 10 at-bats). His focus at the plate is hitting the other way, getting his contact point down and driving opposing pitchers crazy deep in counts.

"I'm a guy who's always been pretty comfortable hitting with two strikes," Gardner told YES' Meredith Marakovits I don't mind getting deep in the count. I plan on being more aggressive this year. I know my role is to see pitches, try to wear the pitcher down and get on base."

Once on base, Gardner has created havoc, something the Yankees hope is habitual this season. The Yankees are 8-for-9 stealing bases, with Gardner and Melky Mesa tied for the team lead at two apiece. Of course, it helps that Gardner remains at full strength.  Right elbow stiffness halted Gardner's 2012 campaign after nine games and he eventually had arthroscopic surgery to remove inflamed tissue and a bone spur. Against the odds, Gardner returned to the active lineup for the Yankees' final seven games, and the way he's played in the spring has increased his importance to the Yankees' 2013 success.

"Especially with Curtis out, we don't have a lot of outfield depth," Gardner said on Sunday. "A guy like [Chris] Dickerson we had last year, he's gone. You know, with Swish [Nick Swisher] being gone, Curtis is out until sometime in May. So it's definitely important for me to stay healthy and take care of myself.

"I think that's why [it was] a big deal, me last week sliding head-first into first base. I realize that, and I need to do a better job, especially during spring training, really continue to work on things and play hard, but at the same time, be careful and be smart about what I do. I'll try to do that, just try to go out every day and play hard and let the chips fall in place, really. That's my goal this year. Stay healthy and play in every game."

Durability was never a question for Gardner -- he played in 159 games in 2011 and 150 in 2010 -- until last season, one he's determined to prove was an aberration. Even though he'll return to left field full-time when Granderson returns, Gardner's overall game is an asset, one the Yankees are counting on sparking their new-look offense.

"Last year was just a freak thing, really," Gardner said. "For the most part, knock on wood, I feel like I do a good job of taking care of myself. My main thing is my legs. I take care of my legs and really try and keep those in shape."

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC

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