Yankees miss former Cougar star Gardner

New York Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner. File/AP

To clarify Brett Gardner's vault from College of Charleston walk-on to New York Yankees starter: He was not once cut from the Cougars' roster — he was cut twice.

We are used to seeing Gardner in the same lineup with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

But how strange to stand next to Joe Girardi in the visitors' dugout at Baltimore's Camden Yards this week and hear the Yankees' manager label the loss of the smallish Gardner as huge. With the 5-10 left fielder out with an elbow injury, the elite-budget New Yorkers are in third place in the rugged American League East.

They miss the infield singles, headfirst slides and crazy outfield range. That old Gardner spark.

“A big part of our speed game is gone,” Girardi said. “Gardy is not here. It changes who we are.”

The little Big Apple man has been out since April 18, the night he made a diving catch against the Twins at Yankee Stadium. Gardner didn't think much of the awkward landing at first.

“But the next day,” he said, “I couldn't swing.”

A bone bruise has healed, but a muscle strain inside the right elbow of the left-handed Gardner has taken a toll. While teammates went to and from Camden Yards batting cages this week, Gardner was confined to stretching and throwing before New York's games against the Orioles. He tried to come back last week at Triple-A Rochester but re-aggravated the injury and remains on the disabled list.

“Hopefully, I can start back hitting sometime this weekend,” said Gardner, a Holly Hill native who lives in Summerville in the offseason.

Gardner is frustrated. This is his most significant injury since a broken finger in 2009. That year, Gardner missed six weeks.

“I wouldn't say this is scary,” Gardner said. “When things like this go on, it can seem like the end of the world, but hopefully it's just a minor setback.”

The Orioles managed a two-game series split, and were happy to miss Gardner during a 5-2 victory Tuesday night.

“He's one of the best base-stealers in the league,” said Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters, the American League All-Star who played at Stratford High School and Georgia Tech. “He has the speed and he's one of those guys who actually takes the art of baserunning and tries to improve on it. You have to have a good throw and get rid of the ball quick to have a chance to get him.”

Wieters said Gardner and Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury — coincidentally also on the disabled list with a shoulder injury — are the two best baserunners in the AL East.

Girardi sees a plan with a hole in it.

“We have the ability to create runs with Gardy in the lineup,” he said. “But we're not like the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1980s — we're about driving the ball.”

Gardner, 28, was off to a sizzling start in his fifth big-league season with a career-high .321 batting average.

“I was feeling good when I got hurt,” Gardner said. “I was swinging the bat well and just excited about having a good year.”

This after establishing career highs for games played (159), plate appearances (588), stolen bases (49) and home runs (7) in 2011.

No wonder Girardi went on about missing his vital cog.

“If he said all that, I didn't hear it,” Gardner said. “I don't pay a whole lot of attention to that; I don't worry about what happens in the media. But I definitely appreciate it. I can do some things on defense and on the bases that a lot of other guys can't do, and hopefully I can get back soon, bring that to the team and help the team win some games.”

The rest of the AL East better enjoy slow-paced New York while it lasts.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or on Twitter @Sapakoff.