By Jay Cohen
Friday, September 19, 2008 11:00 PM
NEW YORK -- Brett Gardner paused for a moment after crashing into the wall in the fourth inning. Sitting on the warning track, he collected himself as Luke Scott rounded the bases and the crowd waited in breathless anticipation.
Finally, he pulled the ball from his glove and threw it toward the infield, sealing his bid for the last great catch at Yankee Stadium.
The center fielder robbed Scott with a terrific grab and doubled in a run Friday night, sparking New York to a 3-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the opener of the final series at the 85-year-old ballpark.
"The guy made a great play," Scott said. "God must be a Yankee fan."
Gardner also threw a runner out at the plate, but it was his play on Scott that got the most attention.
"I just went back hard and was fortunate that I caught the ball before I hit the fence," he said. "I really wasn't trying to pause or add any suspense to what had happened. I guess I was maybe a little shaken up and just kinda taking a moment to get back up."
Robinson Cano hit a solo homer for New York, which has won six of seven after losing the opener of its last homestand. Carl Pavano (4-1) settled down after a shaky start and went five innings to win his second straight start.
Even with their late surge, the Yankees are almost certain to miss the postseason for the first time since starting their run in 1995. They remained 7 1/2 games behind Boston for the wild card and nine back of AL East-leading Tampa Bay with eight games left.
Radhames Liz (6-6) pitched 6 1-3 solid innings for Baltimore, already assured of finishing last in the AL East for the first time since 1988. The Orioles dropped to 2-18 in their last 20 one-run games and have lost 23 of 30 overall.
"I felt like I made some good pitches in tough situations," Liz said through a translator.
The Yankees went in front 3-2 in the fifth, getting a big assist from Liz. Johnny Damon hit a one-out single, stole second and advanced to third on Derek Jeter's hit. Bobby Abreu fouled out, but Damon scored the go-ahead run on Liz's wild pitch to Alex Rodriguez.
Five New York relievers combined for four innings of two-hit ball after Pavano left. Phil Coke, Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte each got two outs, Joba Chamberlain struck out the side in the eighth and Mariano Rivera worked the ninth for his 37th save in 38 opportunities.
New York's bullpen is 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA and four saves in its past 10 games.
"The guys have done a nice job," manager Joe Girardi said.
Jeter made a sharp play on Adam Jones' grounder leading off the ninth, throwing out the center fielder from the outfield grass. Baltimore put runners on first and third with two out but Brian Roberts popped up to end the game.
"It really came down to pitching and defense," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "Gardner had a great game in center field and Derek made a great play there in the ninth."
Gardner sparked the Yankees in the field and at the plate. He threw out Nick Markakis trying to score from second on Aubrey Huff's RBI single in the first, and doubled in Ivan Rodriguez in the third to tie it at 2.
Scott led off the fourth with a drive that sent Gardner scrambling back to the track, just to the left of the 408-foot sign in center. Gardner made a leaping catch against the wall before crumpling to the ground.
After Gardner pulled the ball out, Scott swung his arm in disgust. Pavano just smiled and pointed to center as the sellout crowd of 54,136 roared on a cool night in the Bronx.
"That was an amazing play," Pavano said. "I thought it went out."
Notes: When the Yankees asked players what they'd like from the ballpark, Mike Mussina asked for the flag pole. How would he get it back home to Pennsylvania? "Cut it in pieces, I guess. ... I don't think it's realistic," he said. "I ain't paying a fortune for it, which is what they're going to ask." ... Orioles RHP Daniel Cabrera was placed on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to Sunday, with a sprained elbow. He is done for the season. ... Trembley said LHP Brian Burres will start Saturday. ... A historic artifact from the Yankees' past will be unveiled during the ceremony before Sunday's final game. The Yankees are urging fans to be in their seats by 6:50 p.m. ... Dozens of cops went onto the field after the final out. ... Jeter gave his spikes that he wore Tuesday night when he broke Lou Gehrig's record for most career hits at Yankee Stadium to the Hall of Fame. ... Seen in the crowd: actress Lorraine Bracco.