Gardner's infield single leading off the eighth inning ignited a five-run outburst against Wilson and four Texas relievers to push the Yankees to a 6-5 victory in Game 1 of the AL championship series Friday night.
"All starts with a hustle play," manager Joe Girardi said.
Alex Rodriguez, who scooted home with the go-ahead run in the eighth soon after his two-run single that was nearly a double-play grounder, called Gardner's slide "the big momentum changer." It started a string of seven consecutive batters reaching base.
Just when the Texas Rangers thought they finally might get a home playoff victory, and against their old nemesis, the Yankees beat them again.
The Rangers are 0-7 in postseason home games, with five of those losses against New York. This one hurt the most, since they led 3-0 after Josh Hamilton's homer in the first inning and knocked CC Sabathia out after four innings with a 5-0 lead.
Nolan Ryan was hollering from the front row and manager Ron Washington was pumping his fist in the dugout.
New York's comeback changed all that. Washington looked on in disgust while fans buried their faces in their hands. Ryan sat with his arms crossed, shoulders slumped for the Rangers' part-owner.
"They used to have this show called the 'Twilight Zone.' That's how I felt," Wilson said. "We were all kind of pacing in the dugout. It was surreal."
The Yankees became the first team to win a postseason game after trailing by at least four runs in the eighth since the 2005 Astros, according to STATS LLC. Houston was behind Atlanta 6-1 in the eighth of NL division series Game 4 and went on to win 7-6 in 18 innings.
"It got away from us," Washington said. "But gave it away? No. We just didn't execute."
After a majors-best 48 come-from-behind wins in the regular season, the defending World Series champion Yankees have three more this postseason.
"I'm never surprised at what our guys do. Maybe thrilled, but never surprised," Girardi said. "There's a talented group in there that plays with a lot of passion."
Robinson Cano started the Yankees' comeback in the seventh with a solo homer, the first by a left-hander off Wilson since June 2008.
Then Gardner, the speedy No. 9 hitter, got things rolling in the eighth before Derek Jeter followed with an RBI double to chase the crafty Texas lefty reliever-turned-starter.
Darren Oliver, the only player who had been in a playoff game with Texas before this season, walked the only two batters he faced. Then Rodriguez, who had already struck out twice and made a fielding error to the delight of his former Texas fans, hit a hard grounder that hopped over Michael Young's glove at third base.
"He hit it hard and it took kind of a tricky hop at the end. I would have loved for it to have found my glove," Young said. "I'm not going to lose any sleep over it, that's for sure."
A-Rod's single came against submarining right-hander Darren O'Day, who faced only one batter and took the loss.
New York has won 10 consecutive postseason games against the Rangers, who were knocked out of the playoffs by the Yankees in their only three previous playoffs appearances (1996, 1998 and 1999).
Dustin Moseley, the second of four Yankees' relievers, struck out four in his two perfect innings.
Mariano Rivera worked the ninth for his 42nd career postseason save, extending his major league record. After a pinch-hit single and a sacrifice bunt, Rivera struck out Young and retired Hamilton on a grounder.
Things had started so well for the Rangers in their first ALCS game, and the first time playing a postseason series opener at Rangers Ballpark.
Ryan, the Hall of Famer and team president, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The all-time king of strikeouts and no-hitters fired a heater that drew maybe the loudest pregame cheer from the crowd of 50,935.
Then with Hamilton's homer, Texas already had more runs than it scored in all the 1998 and 1999 division series against New York. The Rangers scored only one run in each of those while being swept in three games both times. They lost the last three games in the 1996 after winning their playoff debut in old Yankee Stadium.
Only a fortunate bounce on what could've been a bases-loaded wild pitch stopped the Rangers from getting more in the first after Hamilton pulled a pitch down the right field line for his first postseason homer.
After an extended gap between starts, eight days of rest since Game 1 of the AL division series against Minnesota, the Yankees' big left-hander labored through the first. Sabathia walked three, gave up three hits and was pitching to the ninth batter when he finally got out of a bases-loaded jam on his 36th pitch -- the 20th ball.
Cruz immediately pointed at home plate while pleading with umpire Gerry Davis, and Washington ran out to join the conversation. But replays showed clearly that Sabathia tagged Cruz on his left arm before his feet slid across the plate.
Young put the Rangers up 5-0 with a two-run double in the fourth before Hamilton took an inning-ending called third strike. That was it for Sabathia in the shortest of his seven postseason games for the Yankees over two Octobers -- and his shortest in 36 starts this year, his two postseason starts included.
Sabathia gave up five runs and six hits and four walks.
"He was definitely off today, but didn't give up 10 runs," Girardi said. "He kept it to five and we were able to come back. "
Yankees pitchers had thrown 24 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in playoffs games at Rangers Ballpark, since the third inning of Game 4 of the 1996 division series. They pitched shutouts at Texas in 1998 and 1999. ... Hamilton was 1 for 10 with four strikeouts in his career against Sabathia before the first-inning homer.