(Happier (and healthier?) times. Courtesy of the AP)
While the rest of the lineup has been either ineffective or injured, Brett Gardner has joined Robbie Cano as one of the most consistent offensive presences this season and has been the second-most important member of the lineup behind Cano. He's been a fixture at the top of the batting order, getting on base at a good clip and hitting for more power than usual. He's also been struggling a bit recently after putting together 2 really hot months in May and June. Gardner has just a .632 OPS, fueled mainly by a sub-.300 OBP, this month after posting a .634 in July. That, and an increase in the number of off-days Joe has given him suggests Gardner might be hitting the physical wall with 30+ games remaining.
It wouldn't be the first time we've seen this happen to Gardner. He struggled to the finish line production-wise in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and his style of play has always been one that can lead to an accumulation of bumps, bruises, and real injuries. Just look back to last season and all the missed time. He took a pitch off the hand Friday night and went for a precautionary MRI on Saturday. It didn't reveal any damage, and Brett was back in the lineup against a righty yesterday, but the day off Joe gave him on Saturday has been more common lately than it was earlier in the year.
In the last 5 games, Gardner has gotten a day at DH and 2 pseudo days off on Thursday and Saturday in which he entered later in games either as a pinch hitter or defensive replacement. Considering how valuable he's been at the top of the order and in center field, this is hardly the time for Joe to be resting one of his most important players unless there's something wrong with him. The team lacks another true leadoff option and they take a hit defensively anytime there's an outfield arrangement that doesn't include Gardner. The only explanation that would make sense for justifying these decisions with Gardner would be one related to his health.
If that's the case, then it's probably a wise move on Joe's part to give Gardner some time when he can. He's asked a lot of Gardner and the handful of other guy who've been healthy since Opening Day, and Gardner has shown to be the type to fall off at the end of the season when the wear and tear adds up. His performance this month has fallen off significantly from where it was earlier in the season, and Joe could just be trying to help Gardner limp to the finish line. We likely won't find out what, if anything, is physically wrong with Gardner until after the season. The way he's playing and the way Joe's choosing to use/rest him right now suggests it's more than just a banged up hand.