To call the play innocent would be a lie, especial after Hideki Matsui‘s broken wrist in 2006. The Yankees were trailing the Twins by two runs in the third inning of the 11th game of the season when Brett Gardner made that sliding (and awkward-looking) catch on a Josh Willingham line drive to end the third inning, a hold-your-breath moment both considering the game situation and the injury factor. Gardner remained in the game though, and in fact he went 2-for-2 with two doubles and two walks on the night. By the end of the game, the sliding catch was an afterthought.
Unfortunately, that was the last time the Yankees and their fans would see Gardner until September. That awkward-looking catch resulted in a right (non-throwing) elbow injury that nearly ended Gardner’s season and eventually required surgery. The timeline of events is lengthy and quite chaotic…
- April 17th: Sliding catch against the Twins.
- April 18th: After being a late scratch due to elbow stiffness, the Yankees placed Gardner on the 15-day DL with a bone bruise and a strain in the right elbow following that night’s game.
- April 28th: Swings a bat for the first time since being placed on the DL.
- May 2nd: Temporarily shut down with pain in the elbow after taking batting practice for a few days.
- May 7-8th: Minor league rehab games with Triple-A Empire State.
- May 10th: Shut down again after re-aggravating the injury during the rehab assignment.
- May 29th: Swings a bat for the first time since the setback.
- June 8th: Minor league rehab game with Low-A Charleston.
- June 9th: Setback #2. Gardner wakes up with pain in his elbow and schedules a visit with Dr. James Andrews as well as Dr. Tim Kremcheck per his agent’s request.
- June 14th: Yankees announce that Gardner received a cortisone shot and platelet-rich plasma therapy on the elbow and will miss 3-4 weeks.
- June 26th: After 69 days on the DL, the Yankees shift Gardner to the 60-day DL to clear a 40-man spot for the recently-claimed Danny Farquhar.
- July 6-11th: Swings a bat for the first time since treatment.
- July 15th: Simulated game in Tampa.
- July 19th: Yankees announce that Gardner will have surgery in the coming days after continued soreness in the elbow.
- September 15th: Gardner ran the bases and bunted for the first time since surgery.
- September 24th: Live batting practice for the first time since surgery.
- September 25th: Yankees activate Gardner off the DL for pinch-running and defensive replacement purposes.
- October 2nd: Doctors fully clear Gardner to play without restrictions, meaning at-bats against big league pitchers.
With Gardner on the shelf and Eduardo Nunez demoted to Triple-A, the Yankees lacked speed in a painfully obvious way. The threat of the stolen base was non-existent, and going to first-to-third on a single was a tactic employed by Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, and pretty much no one else. The Yankees acquired Ichiro Suzuki from the Mariners prior to the trade deadline to replace Gardner, a move that worked out even better than I think the team expected.
Although he returned late in the season, Gardner contributed little in September and into the playoffs. He started the final two games of the ALCS in place of Granderson and Nick Swisher, but failed to reach base in eight trips to the plate. In fact, you can argue that Brett’s biggest contribution to the Yankees in 2012 was getting caught stealing in the eighth inning of Game 161 against the Red Sox. That allowed Granderson to leadoff the ninth against the right-handed Andrew Bailey rather than bat with two outs in the eighth against the left-handed Craig Breslow. Granderson singled to open the ninth and Raul Ibanez followed with a game-tying homer, and the rest was history.
All told, Gardner went 10-for-31 (.323) with five walks (.417 OBP) and two stolen bases (four attempts) during the regular season. He appeared in just 16 games (eight starts) and was a non-factor following the initial injury on April 17th. The Yankees received what amounts to league average production from their left fielders during his absence (103 wRC+), but they lost a ton defensively and on the bases. It’s also worth noting that Granderson started the team’s first 71 games (and 89 of the their first 90 games) in center field, something that certainly wouldn’t have happened with a healthy Gardner.
The Yankees dealt with an overwhelming number of injuries this season, more than any team other than the Padres, but Gardner’s injury was the only one that hurt the club in three different ways — offensively, defensively, and on the bases. He’s been a valuable yet often underrated part of the team for the last few years, and this year the Yankees missed him in a big way prior to acquiring Ichiro.