Commentary

Gardner stands tall as Yankees rally

In a game where a loss seem inevitable, the Bombers came together to earn a key win

Updated: July 19, 2011, 10:16 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The offensive highlights of the New York Yankees' 5-4 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night at Tropicana Field were as follows: one hard slide into second base in the eighth inning and one bases-loaded walk in the ninth. Period.

One was a triumph of aggression, the other a victory for patience, and together, they combined to give the Yankees a rare come-from-behind win and a much-needed victory over a rival that doesn't figure to go away all that easily.

It wasn't pretty and it wasn't crisp -- in fact, it took a minute more than four hours to play, just 17 hours after the Rays had finished a 5 1/2-hour marathon Sunday night -- but when all the numbers are added up at the end of the season, it could turn out to be key.

"It's a big win, especially when you come back like that,'' said Russell Martin, who drew the bases-loaded walk off Alex Torres (making his major league debut in a pressure-cooker) in the ninth inning that wound up winning the game. "It seemed like they had our number all night, and we just had to rally late. Everybody did their part.''

And no one played a bigger part than the smallest Yankee of them all -- well, now that Ramiro Pena is out following an emergency appendectomy. Brett Gardner delivered the hardest hit of the night not with his bat, but with his legs.

"You got to do what you can to try and get that run across,'' Gardner said. "I'm definitely not trying to hurt anybody, but it's my job, to go in hard and make it difficult for him to turn that double play.''

It happened in the eighth inning -- Gardner sliding hard into second, his right leg making solid contact with the left leg of Rays second baseman Sean Rodriguez, knocking his relay off line, preventing the inning-ending double play and allowing Nick Swisher to score the Yankees' fourth run -- and without it, quite possibly, there is no tie game heading into the ninth, no Torres rushed into service, no bases-loaded situation for Martin to display his unique brand of patience at the plate.

[+] EnlargeBrett Gardner
Kim Klement/US PresswireBrett Gardner's key hit in the eight inning sparked the Yankees comeback.

"Nunie gets down the line pretty well, so I'm not sure if they would have turned the double play anyway,'' Gardner said. "But I definitely wanted to go in hard enough to affect his throw.''

Gardner certainly did, immediately after his RBI single off old buddy Kyle Farnsworth had driven in Robinson Cano with the Yankees' third run of the night.

Suddenly, a game that had all the indications of being a New York loss after two innings had been played -- A.J. Burnett allowed four early runs, a hole the Yankees seemed unable to climb out of against young, hard-throwing Alex Cobb -- began to take on the look of the kind of game the Yankees won routinely in their championship season of 2009 and, far less frequently, last year.

Only twice in 33 games when trailing after seven innings this season had the Yankees come back to win, but with the Rays tired and depleted after playing a 16-inning game with the Red Sox that began Sunday night and ended at nearly 2 a.m. ET Monday morning, it seemed almost inevitable that the Yankees would come back to win this one.

Curtis Granderson started it with a single leading off the ninth off Torres, who was only called up in the afternoon to shore up the decimated bullpen. Torres then struck out Mark Teixeira, who looks lost at the plate, and got Cano to bounce out for the second out.

Meanwhile, Granderson made his way to third via a stolen base and Cano's groundout, at which point Joe Maddon thought it prudent to walk Nick Swisher to get to Andruw Jones, who occasionally punishes left-handed pitching.

Torres then unintentionally walked Jones, bringing Martin to the plate with the bases loaded. The 23-year-old lefty got away with a 3-2 changeup that Martin crushed foul down the left-field line, then did not get away with a fastball that sailed up and out of the strike zone.

"Obviously, in that situation at 3-2, you're ready to swing,'' Martin said. "He's trying to throw a strike; he's not trying to walk you. But the pitch was up and out of the zone. I just recognized it early and didn't swing.''

That forced in the winning run and brought on Mariano Rivera, who pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his 24th save. It also kept the Yankees 1 1/2 games behind the Red Sox, who beat the Orioles 15-10 in Baltimore, and increased their lead over the Rays in the American League wild-card race to 6 1/2 games.

The Yankees still have three more games to play in Tampa -- and Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, suddenly two huge question marks in their rotation, are starting two of them -- but rallying to win this first one after all seemed to be lost was certainly a huge step.

"I think this is an important series for us because this is one of the teams we know we're going to continue to fight for our division,'' Joe Girardi said. "There's a long ways to go but these are four important games.''

•••

To add to the endless nature of the game, play was delayed for 18 minutes after a lightning strike at a nearby electrical relay station caused a bank of lights to flicker and go out while Cano was batting in the fifth inning. Both managers were asked whether they would play through the slightly dimmed conditions. Girardi refused. "I thought it was a big time in the game and I want all the lights on in that situation,'' he said. "I knew it could mess up our pitcher, too, but I thought it was a big-time situation and I felt we needed to wait.'' Asked whether he thought he could hit in the diminished lighting, Cano said, "No chance. It was too dark.'' After play resumed, Cano grounded out on the first pitch he saw. ... Burnett (5-1/3IP, 8H, 4R, 6BBs) said, "I was actually better after the lights went out. Maybe they should do it more often.'' ... As he left the field after being removed from the game in the sixth inning, Burnett got into a verbal altercation with a fan sitting behind the Yankees' dugout. "I forgot it as soon as it happened,'' Burnett said. "I couldn't tell you what I said or what he said.'' ... Hector Noesi and David Robertson pitched between Burnett and Rivera and combined to put up 2 2/3 innings of no-run, one-hit, four strikeout ball. ... Derek Jeter's sixth inning single was the 3,008th of his career and moved him past Hall of Famer Al Kaline on the all-time hits list. Next target: former teammate Wade Boggs (3,010). ... Granderson was on base four times (two singles, two walks), scored twice and stole two bases. ... IF Brandon Laird, called up from Triple-A Scranton to replace Pena, arrived sometime during the game and was in uniform by the sixth inning. ... Colon (6-5, 3.47 ERA) tries to bounce back from his worst start as a Yankee on Tuesday night against Jeremy Hellickson (8-7, 3.21). First pitch at 7:10 ET.

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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