Commentary

Gardner, Swisher will topple from top

Yankees' effective, two-headed leadoff man must step aside when Jeter returns

Updated: June 22, 2011, 10:44 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CINCINNATI -- Since June 14, a span of the past seven games, the leadoff position in the New York Yankees' batting order has produced a batting average of .423 and an on-base percentage of .559.

The two-headed monster of Brett Gardner starting against right-handers and Nick Swisher against left-handers has combined for 17 hits in 26 at-bats, eight runs, seven walks and one hit-by-pitch.

Individually, the numbers are in some ways even more striking. Gardner, who has batted leadoff in three of those seven games, has hit .538 over that span, and his OBP is .600. Swisher, who has led off in four of those games, is hitting .308 with an on-base percentage of .526.

And on or around June 29, both of them will have to make way once again for Derek Jeter, who will resume his role at the top of the batting order as soon as he is eligible to come off the disabled list.

[+] EnlargeBrett Gardner
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesBrett Gardner was the leadoff man Sunday at Wrigley Field and went 3-for-5 in a Yankees win.

Asked before Tuesday night's Yankees-Reds game was rained out whether his decision would be a hard one, considering how well both Gardner and Swisher have performed in Jeter's absence, Joe Girardi's answer was succinct: "I don't think so."

"Derek's been our leadoff guy," Girardi said. "We'll see how he feels when he comes back, but yeah, he'll still be our leadoff guy."

The news out of Tampa earlier in the day had been good. Jeter -- who strained his right calf leaving the batter's box on a fly out in a June 13 game against the Indians at Yankee Stadium -- had begun to resume some baseball activities, including long tossing.

"Derek's going in the right direction," Girardi said. "I don't think he's hit yet, but he's throwing, and that's a step in the right direction."

The manager indicated that all signs were leading to a return by Jeter at the end of the 15-day DL period, give or take a day or so if it is determined he needs a rehab game or two in the minor leagues first.

"You may want him to go through a game just to see how it feels and how he bounces back the next day," Girardi said. "Because the one thing that you'd hate is if he was to come back, play a day and have to take another couple days off."

In any event, either before the Milwaukee Brewers leave town the last week in June or by the time the Yankees travel the 8 miles from the Bronx to Flushing to play the Mets the first weekend in July, Jeter will be back in the lineup and, most likely, back in the leadoff spot.

Which means Gardner and Swisher, among the two most productive hitters in the order right now and the best leadoff hitters the club has had this year, will be moving back down in the batting order.

The one who seems to be in line for the biggest fall is Gardner, who after suffering through a terrible first month of the season has batted .348 in May and June, with an on-base percentage of .421. And even though he has thrived in the leadoff spot in Jeter's absence, when "The Captain" returns, Gardner is likely to find himself back at the bottom of the order.

"I feel like pretty much the same hitter," Gardner said. "I haven't changed a whole lot. My swing's still the same. Maybe a little more of an aggressive approach recently as opposed to earlier in the year and parts of last season. Hopefully, like I said earlier, it's a matter of getting on a little roll, getting some confidence and just trying to maintain that."

It is hard to maintain confidence, however, when your manager sees you as not only a bottom-of-the-order guy, but a hitter who can't hit lefties, which is the way Girardi seems to view Gardner.

Although there is a negligible difference between the left-handed hitting Gardner's performance versus righties (.294 batting average, .366 on-base percentage) and versus lefties (.286, .390), it is obvious Girardi has no confidence in him against left-handed pitching by both the disparity in plate appearances -- Gardner has just 35 at-bats versus lefties -- and the way Girardi prefers to use Andruw Jones, with his .213 BA, his .289 OBP, his four home runs and his 12 RBIs in left field whenever a left-hander is starting.

"I don't have a problem playing Gardy against lefties, but we got Andruw Jones to provide some power against lefties," Girardi said. "He provides pop at the bottom of our order. He's a guy who can hit the ball out of the ballpark. It's important that we keep Andruw in the mix."

If the managerial policy rankles Gardner, he does his best not to show it. Asked what he would need to do to convince Girardi he should play against all types of pitching, Gardner said, "Hit .400 [against lefties], I guess. Obviously my ultimate goal is to be an everyday player, but I understand that there's other guys that are going to get at-bats."

But he acknowledged there is some frustration in having to wear an unjust label that he is finding difficult to shake.

"When you get on a roll, you want to be in there to play every day and try to keep things going," he said. "If you're not getting a lot of at-bats against lefties, it's hard to get better against them. For myself, it puts that much more of a focus on really trying to grind out at-bats against them, really trying to focus on having a good at-bat and see some pitches and take good swings against them. It makes every at-bat against them that much more important."

If Gardner is ever going to change Girardi's mind about that, he's got about a half-dozen more games in which to do it. Derek Jeter is on his way back, Andruw Jones is still here and Brett Gardner's time, as both a leadoff hitter and an everyday player, could be about to diminish.

• • •

The pitching matchups for Wednesday's day/night doubleheader are RHP Freddy Garcia (5-6, 3.63 ERA) versus RHP Mike Leake (6-3, 4.04) at 12:35 p.m. ET and RHP Brian Gordon (0-0, 3.38) versus RHP Johnny Cueto (4-2, 1.68) at 7:10. ... The need for additional pinch hitters and defensive replacements in the DH-less National League makes it likely Alex Rodriguez, who was in line for a DH day or a day off soon anyway, will not play one of the two games. "It may turn out that his DH day is as a pinch hitter," Girardi said. ... Eduardo Nuñez, who has been the everyday shortstop in Jeter's absence, was not in Tuesday night's lineup. "Nunie's played seven days in a row," Girardi said. "Even though he's young, you get a little concerned about fatigue and the heat and the humidity. There is some fear that if he is fatigued, that he could hurt something." Ramiro Peña had been penciled in to play shortstop. ... Girardi said he would continue to use Boone Logan as his "left-handed specialist," even though left-handed hitters are batting .300 against him. "I'm not afraid to bring in Boone. I'm not afraid to bring him in," Girardi said. "It's just, he hadn't pitched in a week. You can throw as many bullpens as you want, but it's hard to stay sharp if you're not getting in a game. We need him, and that's the bottom line." ... Girardi said all the news out of Tampa regarding the Yankees' walking wounded was good. In addition to Jeter, Bartolo Colon (left hamstring strain), Rafael Soriano (elbow inflammation), Pedro Feliciano (rotator cuff strain) and Damaso Marte (labrum inflammation) all played catch Tuesday afternoon. ... Girardi's pregame news conference was interrupted by a cellphone call from Paul O'Neill, who was on his way to the Great American Ball Park to work the TV broadcast and was seeking a weather report. After Girardi told him there was a good chance the game would be called, the manager reported, "O'Neill's turning back. He said he's going to go out to dinner."

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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