02/24/11 6:26 PM EST
Gardner wants to round out skills with bunting
By Bryan Hoch / MLB.com
Gardner has heard it before -- that with his speed, bunting could be a lethal weapon, if only he could get the technique down. Gardner agrees, and as he rips the Velcro straps from his batting gloves, he says that this is the year he'll get it right.
"I definitely think it's something that can add to my game," Gardner said. "If I can get my confidence with it and get really comfortable with it, I think it's something that I can get really good at and use on a consistent basis.
"It makes the infield come even farther in, and when they come farther in, you get more balls over their heads and right past them."
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Gardner is at his best when he is getting on base and using his legs to manufacture runs. Though he was slowed by a wrist injury after being hit by a pitch in late June, Gardner still led the Yankees with a .383 on-base percentage while batting .277 and scoring 93 runs.
Gardner also had a great eye, leading all Major Leaguers with 4.76 pitches seen per plate appearance and showcasing a 97.5 percent contact rate on pitches he swung at in the strike zone.
Adding bunting to that mix, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, would only serve to improve on what he considered to be a very successful year for the speedster.
"The thing is, a lot of times, guys are going to play right down his throat," Girardi said. "You see certain teams, they play way in, and that makes it difficult because then the bunt has to be almost perfect. But by bringing them in, I think that opens more holes for him. I do want it to be a part of his game."
So now Gardner is back in the cages, trying to hone a skill that seems to have drifted away from him after he used it successfully in the Minors. Yankees coaches Rob Thomson and Mick Kelleher have each had sessions with Gardner, talking about footwork, angles and timing.
Gardner has been reminded to watch the defense, getting the bat angle and timing right. So far, the student seems to be picking it up.
"It's the best technique and touch I've seen from him," Kelleher said. "It's still practice, and you've got to take that through into the games. But it really looks good.
"He needs to get the ball down and keep it in fair territory. We're going to do it, get it down right and get him a lot of base hits with that speed. He's really working hard on it."
Before last season, Gardner spent hours in a batting cage near his Holly Hill, S.C., home dropping bunts off a pitching machine, vowing he would be able to make it a weapon again.
When the schedule began, however, Gardner was frustrated by popping some bunts up and watching others roll into foul territory. He thought back to 2007 in the Minors, when bunting for hits had come more naturally to him and helped him earn a promotion to Triple-A.
"It's something that I used to do a lot," Gardner said. "There's no reason I shouldn't have continued to do it. I got away from it trying to utilize all my at-bats to work on my swing and took for granted it would always be there."
In the grander picture, Gardner is thankful the bunting issue is one of his only laments for the 2010 season. Of course, he wishes he could have avoided Clayton Kershaw's 91 mph fastball back on June 27, which led to a painful second half and eventually December wrist surgery.
But Gardner said he now feels 100 percent healed from the procedure, and it makes no sense for him to wonder what might have been. The year was solid enough that Gardner feels like he has made some of the doubters re-think their positions.
"Really, it's just been my deal the whole way up," Gardner said. "I just continue to work hard and continue to prove people wrong. I feel like last year went pretty well -- I showed that I can get on base, and when I can get on base, good things happen."
Gardner's main focus is to stay healthy for the full season, but he is confident that he can develop into an elite bunter. Perhaps this will be a season in which he can enjoy proving his detractors wrong one more time.
"It's something that's still there," Gardner said. "Maybe I lost confidence and my comfort level with it, but it's something that I definitely think could make me a much better player."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.