Commentary

Cano's hard work pays off vs. Mets

It's been a tough season for the Yankees star, but two-homer night is promising

Updated: June 9, 2012, 1:36 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Robinson Cano didn't do anything Friday night to improve his numbers when hitting with runners in scoring position, or when batting with the bases loaded -- two areas in which he has excelled his entire career but has struggled with this season.

But that's only because he never got the opportunity. And anyway, as Cano pointed out after the New York Yankees had crushed the New York Mets, 9-1, in the first Subway Series game of 2012 at Yankee Stadium, what difference does it make where the runners are standing at the beginning of your at-bat as long as they are sitting in the dugout at the end of it?

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Tim Farrell/US PresswireRobinson Cano smacked two homers on Friday, his 10th and 11th of the season.

"It don't matter if they're at first or second or third," he said. "If you can get them in or move them up, you are doing your job."

Through 56 games this season, Cano was an impact player making very little impact, but all of that changed with two swings of the bat Friday night.

On this night, Cano did his job in Reggie-like fashion, and he did it against a left-hander (which has been a problem for him all season long), and he did it against not just any left-hander but Johan Santana, who was coming off a no-hitter in his last outing.

Both times, the runner (Alex Rodriguez) was on first base, so his average with runners in scoring position remains a paltry .151. And he never did come to bat with the bases loaded, so for at least one more day, he will remain at .083 and holding in the situation that has most batters licking their chops.

But, most encouragingly, he did it with Cano-vian aggressiveness, jumping on the first pitch he saw in both at-bats. And he did it with customary Cano grace, with a swing so effortless it looks from the stands as if anyone could do it.

You have to get to the ballpark mighty early, however, to get a peek behind the curtain -- to learn that it does take some work to be Robby Cano, a lot of work in fact, work that often begins several hours before any of his teammates have even arrived at the stadium.

"There's a lot of things about his game that he makes appear very smooth," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "That's always how he's been, but he works extremely hard. He's here taking early BP every day trying to get his stroke in order. But when you look at Robby Cano you understand how talented he is and what he's capable of and you know it's just a matter of time."

Cano has been out early every day this week, sometimes before 2 p.m. for a 7:05 game -- just he and hitting coach Kevin Long, going through what Long calls the "home run drill" in which he sets up a screen at home plate that forces Cano to swing short and tight and pull the ball while Long soft-tosses him underhand pitches, the idea being for Cano to jack them into the right-field seats.

Which, of course, he does quite easily in the drill. In a game, of course, no one is soft-tossing or throwing underhand, so it's not quite as easy.

Add in the fact that batting against lefties has been a particular problem for Cano this season -- a lifetime .294 hitter against southpaws, Cano was hitting just .200 against them this season, with just one home run in 75 at-bats -- and Friday had all the makings of another tough night for the hitter generally considered to be the best in the Yankees' lineup.

But Cano made it look easy against Santana, a lefty against whom he has had a reasonable amount of success -- a .364 lifetime average on eight hits in 22 at-bats, although none of them home runs.

In the second inning, he shattered Santana's dream of matching Johnny Vander Meer's feat of throwing back-to-back no-hitters when he jumped on a first-pitch fastball and sent it into the right-field seats. Following a leadoff walk, Cano's 10th homer of the season gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead.

An inning later, he blew a huge hole in Santana's, and the Mets', hopes of drawing first blood in the series by jumping on another first pitch. This one was a hanging slider, again scoring A-Rod, who had singled, to make it 4-0.

"The only thing I know is he's a guy who throws a lot of strikes and that's a guy you want to go and be aggressive with," Cano said. "You don't want to get behind in the count because he's got a lot of pitches and his changeup against lefties can be effective."

Cano's second home run opened the floodgates on Santana, who made another kind of history on this night, allowing back-to-back-to-back home runs for the first time in his career. Nick Swisher followed Cano's blast with one of his own into the left-field seats, and then Andruw Jones chimed in with a line drive just inside the left-field foul pole.

With Hiroki Kuroda in command -- he did not allow the Mets a hit until there were two outs in the sixth -- the 6-0 lead appeared to be more than enough, and it was.

"I told the guys, 'If you get a pitch to hit, you better hit it because lately he hasn't been making a lot of mistakes,"' Girardi said of Santana. "And in his career he hasn't made a whole lot of mistakes. But he got the ball a little up tonight and our guys took advantage of that."

Coming on the heels of a miserable Thursday night in which he stranded five runners, including bouncing out with the bases loaded to end an inning in the Yankees' 7-3 loss to Tampa Bay, it was a different Cano who met the media Friday night.

After the Thursday loss, he was reflective and contrite. "I just haven't been doing my job with men on base," he said. "There's no excuses for that."

A day later, no excuses were necessary. "Honestly, I wasn't frustrated because this is a long season," he said. "You're going to play 162 games and I'm not gonna be successful every time up. All I do is go out there and stay positive and be aggressive. I've done some good things the last few days and [eventually] I'll be able to hit with men on base, which is what you want."

You hear things like that from struggling players all the time, but from Cano, you tend to believe it. This isn't an Alex Rodriguez, whose numbers have been steadily declining as his age increases. This is a 29-year-old, impeccably talented athlete who should be approaching the prime of a memorable career.

He works hard before the game so he can make it look easy during the game, and when Girardi says it's only a matter of time before Cano starts hitting like the player he anointed to displace A-Rod as his cleanup hitter against right-handers, you tend to believe that, too.

"There's no limit to what Robby Cano can do for this team," Girardi said. "Sooner or later, it will happen, believe me."

It may very well have started on Friday night.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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