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Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Updated: October 4, 9:13 AM ET
Yankees' title run resting on Robbie

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Robinson Cano was wearing a gray championship T-shirt drenched in champagne and goggles stretched across his cap as he stepped outside his clubhouse, stopping long enough to take a swig from a chilled bottle of Mumm Napa.

A Yankee Stadium security guard pointed to his cell phone and said he had a message from a woman claiming to be Cano's sibling. "I don't have a sister, man," the second baseman said through a laugh.

Robinson Cano
These aren't Derek Jeter's or Alex Rodriguez's Yankees anymore. They're Robinson Cano's.

Family, friends, strangers in the night ... they all feel the same way. Everybody loves a winner.

"And Robbie was all-world tonight," Alex Rodriguez said.

Cano looks so elegant playing the most maddening of games, he should wear a tuxedo and top hat to the park. Fred Astaire did not make tap dancing look any easier than Cano makes fielding a grounder or hitting a fastball to the moon.

So there he was on the Yankee Stadium stage Wednesday night, reducing the Boston Red Sox pitching staff to the size of a rosin bag and leading the American League East champions with a pair of towering two-run homers and a two-run single to boot. The Yankees finished embarrassing the Boston Red Sox, 14-2, long after the Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Baltimore Orioles and settled the AL East, inspiring the scoreboard operators in the Bronx to post the news and send the Stadium crowd into a frenzy while A-Rod backed out of the box and his teammates hugged and high-fived in the dugout.

The Yanks could be most proud of a division title won without Mariano Rivera, and won after they surrendered every precious yard of a 10-game lead without ever letting Baltimore punch it across the goal line.

"No one ever panicked," Joe Girardi said, and the manager did a hell of a job doing what the late, great Chuck Daly swore was a head coach's chief responsibility -- finding a way to land the plane. Yeah, Girardi got this one down safely.

But he doesn't wear No. 28 on his back for any reason associated with the AL East. Girardi's job is to go the distance (it's right there in the mission statement), and Cano just hardened his standing as the Yankee most likely to win or lose the franchise's 28th World Series ring.

"Tonight reminded me of what (Hideki) Matsui did in Game 6 (of the World Series) in '09," A-Rod said. "Robbie is putting on an absolute clinic, and I've been in front of him and your only job when you're in front of a guy that hot is not to disturb his timing and get on base as much as possible so he can keep crushing it."

Hey, these aren't Derek Jeter's Yankees anymore, even if the captain came up with a season that defied his advancing age. These aren't Alex Rodriguez's October burdens anymore, either, not with A-Rod a diminished presence and not after the haunted superstar won his liberating ring in 2009.

Cano was something of a passenger during that postseason run, hitting south of .200 and failing to produce any extra-base hits in two of the three series. That won't be good enough this time around. If the 2012 Yankees are to end up parading under another ticker-tape rain, Cano will be needed in the driver's seat.

"When Robbie's on," CC Sabathia said, "he's the best hitter in the game."

Miguel Cabrera could blast some serious holes in that claim, but nobody in the champagne bath that was the home clubhouse Wednesday night really much cared. Back in his cleanup spot one night after Girardi's near-disastrous decision to bat him behind Mark Teixeira, Cano went deep on Daisuke Matsuzaka in the third, went deep on Clayton Mortensen in the fifth, and hit his bases-loaded single off Scott Atchison in the sixth with the fans standing and chanting, Rah-bee ... Rah-bee.

Cano matched his career high of six RBIs. He finished the night with four hits in four at-bats, with an absurd 24 hits in his past 39 at-bats (.615), and with his ninth consecutive multi-hit game. Bernie Williams was the last Yankee to piece together something more impressive than that, a streak of 10 games in 2002.

With a staggering show of precision and power, Cano lifted his batting average from .293 on Sept. 24 to an endgame of .313. He dropped a boulder on Bobby Valentine's final days as Red Sox manager, and summoned the bygone words of his own hitting coach, Kevin Long, who told ESPNNewYork.com before the 2011 season that Cano would soon take the Yankees from Jeter, A-Rod and Mariano and become what Long called "the face of the franchise."

Reminded of his coach's forecast, Cano said, "I don't want to put those kinds of thoughts in my mind. I just want to learn from those guys who have been here a long time ... so when they leave and retire you say, 'You know what, now is my time.' But until then they're here and you just appreciate playing next to Hall of Famers and enjoy them."

No, Cano need not wait for anyone to retire. He turns 30 later this month. His time is now.

"You just can't wait to step to the plate and get a pitch that you can drive," Cano said of his white-hot streak. "It's a great feeling."

The second baseman said he couldn't remember ever being so locked in, but disputed the notion that he's a natural at the plate, a hitting genius, a Mozart in spikes. Cano spoke of showing up at the park early to put in extra time in the cage.

"You guys might not see me," he told reporters.

But everyone has seen Cano jogging when he should be sprinting, and lunging when he should be diving. This goes back to the darkest hours of 2008, when Girardi had to bench him for failing to chase after a loose ball.

Yankees legends don't forget to hustle, and Yankees legends don't leave chroniclers scrambling to recall signature October moments, either.

So how great does Robbie Cano want to be? In search of a higher motivational force, Cano once watched tapes of Michael Jordan speaking about his desire to conquer all.

Baseball and basketball are apples and oranges, so the Yankees can never be Cano's team like the Chicago Bulls were Jordan's. But on the other hand, this is no longer 2006, when Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland called the mighty Yankees lineup "Murderers' Row and then Cano."

The kid at the bottom of the lineup then is a Murderers' Row all his own now. The Yankees don't know the identity of their opponent in the Division Series, but this much they do know:

Their 28th World Series title is likely Robinson Cano's to win or lose.