Gardner's churning wheels made it home ahead of Hunter's powerful, accurate throw on Alex Rodriguez's sacrifice line drive, handing a lead over to Mariano Rivera. The Yankees became the first team to clinch a postseason assignment, while the Angels' magic number was shaved to five with the Rangers' loss to the A's in Oakland.
"It was a perfect throw," said Angels catcher Ryan Budde, who handled Hunter's bullet as Gardner was arriving. "I held my ground as long as I could, and he slid through my legs. When that throw came out of his hand, I thought, 'We've got a play.' Speed kills."
Hunter, who loaded up and got his entire body into the one-hop throw, was impressed with the way his club rebounded in familiar fashion from a 5-0 deficit.
"Five runs down against the Yankees, and we caught 'em," Hunter said. "These guys don't quit. That was impressive."
The Angels scored twice in the fifth, twice in the sixth and once in the eighth to draw even, with Kendry Morales (four hits), Chone Figgins (homer, two singles) and Maicer Izturis (double, single, RBI) driving the offense.
The ninth, Matt Palmer's third inning in relief of Ervin Santana, began with Gardner's single and steal of second. Walks to Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira -- which was intentional -- around Johnny Damon's sacrifice brought A-Rod to the plate.
A pivotal figure with the bat and the glove, A-Rod smoked a liner against Darren Oliver, a wily southpaw who has held right-handed hitters to a .225 batting average this season.
"Gardner's speed made the play unmakeable," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "It would have taken a miraculous throw."
A-Rod, Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui each went deep for the Yankees, and A-Rod also delivered the play of the night defensively.
Leaving his feet, he smothered Vladimir Guerrero's sharp grounder near the third-base line and threw him out to leave the bases loaded in the sixth after the Angels had rallied to draw within a run.
Four singles and a bases-loaded walk by Bobby Abreu produced two runs before Rodriguez robbed Guerrero to save Alfredo Aceves, who had come to starter Chad Gaudin's rescue for the last out in the fifth.
A-Rod got the power-lifting started with a mammoth two-run shot to center field on a 3-0 pitch in the third after Teixeira, his good buddy, had ripped his second single.
"That ball was crushed," Hunter said. "I've seen A-Rod go upper deck in center in Minnesota. The guy is crazy strong."
In the wake of A-Rod's 27th homer, Posada joined the long-ball party with a two-run shot, his 22nd.
Santana -- whose lively stuff was reflected in seven strikeouts, which tied a season high -- was victimized again, this time by Matsui, who led off the fifth with his 28th homer.
The Yankees were making Angel Stadium, never known as a hitter's paradise, look downright cozy.
It was Figgins who got the Angels' offense in motion -- and he did it with a home-run trot after two men were out in the fifth.
For the second time in three games, Figgins found seats in the right-field corner, hitting his fifth blast of the season and making it 5-1. Figgins, who had homered on Sunday in Texas, might have picked up some inspiration from the greatest of all leadoff men.
"I watched a special on Rickey Henderson on MLB Network today that was great," Figgins said. "There was never anybody like Rickey, right?"
Izturis followed Figgins' blow with a double to the right-center-field gap. After Abreu coaxed one of his three walks, Gaudin made his final delivery of the night -- an 0-2 pitch that Guerrero slammed to left to cash in Izturis.
Aceves came on to get Hunter chasing a 1-2 breaking ball to end the threat.
Morales' third hit jump-started the sixth against Aceves. Juan Rivera followed with a single. Batting for Jeff Mathis, Gary Matthews Jr. -- lifting his average with runners in scoring position to .345 -- stroked an 0-2 single to right to drive in Morales.
Figgins, also with two strikes, lashed a single to left, loading the bases. After Izturis fouled out, Abreu walked on a full count. This gave Guerrero a shot at breaking it open, but A-Rod broke his heart -- and the Angels' momentum -- with a spectacular play.
The Angels were unable to cash in Morales' one-out double in the seventh when Phil Hughes, who would move to 8-3 with the win, rode to the rescue.
Howard Kendrick's sharp grounder off Robinson Cano's glove at second led to the tying run. Kendrick stole second, took third on Posada's throwing error and scored on Izturis' single. Hughes left two runners stranded by striking out Guerrero and Hunter.
After Morales' leadoff walk in the ninth, Juan Rivera went down swinging at a third strike, and pinch-runner Reggie Willits was caught stealing. Mariano Rivera, the master, wrapped up his 41st save by retiring Erick Aybar.