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Lee Gardner had a fantastic 2007 season—then was out of baseball soon after

The following article originally appeared on Stranded Sports in 2021. With the author’s consent, it has been lightly edited and published here for the Fish Stripes audience.

Relievers are some of the most fickle ballplayers the league has ever seen. They can be completely dominant for one season and seemingly can’t get an out in the next. Take Edwin Díaz, for example. After his electric 2018 season in Seattle, Diaz came over to New York and had an extremely unlucky season in 2019 where almost every fly ball he gave up was a home run. Since 2020, Díaz has regained his elite form.

The reliever in question in today’s article is a guy who didn’t have a long track record of success or experience to his credit by the 2007 season. Lee Gardner had just 17 appearances over two separate seasons (2002 and 2005) with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. By the time he had signed with the Marlins, it had been a few years since he appeared in the majors but earned a spot in the bullpen out of spring training. This move proved to be one of the most important for the 2007 Marlins.

Gardner’s April was quite successful. Rewarded with the most increased role of his career out of the bullpen, Gardner in turn rewarded the Marlins. He didn’t allow a run in his first four appearances and five innings tossed, including picking up his first career save in a victory over the Phillies on April 8. The streak was ended via an RBI single by Gabe Gross, starting a stretch of four straight appearances allowing a run. Gardner closed out the month of April with four scoreless innings against the Braves, ending the month with a 2.57 ERA in 9 games encompassing 14 innings.

The month of May was not kind to Lee Gardner. While he only allowed runs in four appearances, they were in spectacular fashion, all culminating in a three-run outing against the Phillies on May 23. Despite four more scoreless appearances to end the month, Gardner was optioned to AAA when Henry Owens returned from injury.

While Gardner made two more appearances in June, when he was fully back in July, his season officially started. Gardner became one of the most lights-out relievers in the league for the final three months of the season.

Things started with a bang in July, not allowing a single run in his first nine appearances of the month. An Orlando Hudson RBI single snapped the stretch on July 24 and that was the only run he allowed during the entire month. He finished July with a 0.63 ERA in 14 13 innings pitched.

In August, Gardner allowed just two earned runs, trimming his season ERA down to 2.25 and month ERA to 1.06. The second and final home run he allowed during the season came in this month, allowing one on August 12 to Moises Alou of the Mets, the first he had allowed since June 13 when David Dellucci of the Indians touched him for a three-run shot.

During September, Gardner was, once again, a rock coming out of the bullpen for Florida. He allowed a single earned run again this month, an RBI single to Julio Franco. I’m sensing a common theme here for these months. After that run, he was unscored upon in his final 6 23 innings and six appearances, including four holds and a save. Two of those holds came against the Mets in crucial games during their late-season collapse.

His final season stats were special. In 62 games, far and away the most of his career, Gardner had a 1.94 ERA, 3.91 SIERA, 3.04 FIP, and a 1.5 fWAR. While advanced stats do show he was lucky, that is evidenced by his microscopic 2.2% HR/FB rate. Somehow, batters just couldn’t square up Gardner’s pitches. He also left 82-percent of runners inherited on the basepaths, solid as ever. His ERA+ was unreal, notching a 226 mark.

He finished tenth among relievers in ERA that season and fifth in the NL, only behind Takashi Saito, Carlos Marmol, Peter Moylan and J.C. Romero (who spent some of the season in the American League as well). The only other reliever on the Marlins with a sub-3.20 ERA was Matt Lindstrom.

These stats make what happened all the more head-scratching for Lee Gardner. He made the Opening Day roster again, but this time got rocked around. He allowed eight runs in seven appearances and 6 23 innings pitched, equaling the home run total he allowed the prior season as well. On April 17, he was placed on the injured list with elbow inflammation, and then, didn’t return for the remainder of the season. Gardner surprisingly announced his retirement after the season was over.

While Gardner’s advanced stats did say he was due for a regression and that he was lucky in 2007 with a .297 BABIP, I do not think anyone expected him to come crashing down to earth like that and then be out of baseball entirely. It is a shame that injury happened, because I would have liked to see what Gardner could do had he been healthy the full season.

Luckily for him, he played baseball at the highest level and has one season of dominance to tell stories about for years to come. He was a huge part of the Florida Marlins playing spoiler towards the end of the season, and for a guy who hadn’t had a chance to shine in the majors, he did in 2007.