Commentary

Robinson cruise control strikes again

Cano brings March intensity to October as Yankees lose Game 2 of ALCS at home

Updated: October 15, 2012, 12:42 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Robinson Cano is not turning baseball into ballet anymore. A star known for making an impossibly difficult game look easier than 1-2-3, Cano is busy embarrassing himself in October with amateurish at-bats and spring training intensity.

Didn't his middle-of-the-infield mentor, Derek Jeter, teach this guy anything? In fact, Jeter has tried over the years to convince Cano that he needs to run out every last dribbler, dive, get his uniform dirty, play the game like Jeter does, like Pete Rose did.

And for what? So Cano could do a three-quarters jog to first base and play carelessly with a double-play ball in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, the day after Jeter broke his ankle and left behind a New York Yankees team in dire need of some win-one-for-the-gimper grit?

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsRobinson Cano bobbles the Yankees' chance at a double play in the seventh inning.

"This isn't a Robbie thing," Alex Rodriguez argued after the Detroit Tigers handed a 2-0 series lead to Justin Verlander. "It's a collective thing."

Only that collective thing always has a funny way of becoming an A-Rod thing. Not Sunday. Not at a time when Cano has none of the excuses available to Rodriguez (advanced age, accumulation of injuries, loss of athleticism, loss of the manager's faith).

Cano is 29, very much in his prime. He finished the regular season on an unholy tear, going 24-for-39 in the final nine games to win the Yankees the division title.

It was official: Cano had notarized the vision of his hitting coach, Kevin Long, who had predicted in the spring of 2011 that the second baseman would soon seize face-of-the-franchise rights from Jeter, A-Rod and Mariano Rivera.

Now look at Cano, a lost figure in a lost-cause lineup. He has gone hitless in 26 consecutive at-bats, the longest streak in postseason history and one that compelled the second baseman to complain about an eighth-inning tag play that the umpire, Jeff Nelson, and an overlording MLB executive, Joe Torre (remember him?), admitted was wrong.

"He was out by five feet," Cano said. "If it was the right call it would be a different game, 1-0 instead of 3-0."

Yankees manager Joe Girardi got himself good and ejected on his 48th birthday, and then made the mistake of turning his postgame news conference into a campaign for more instant replay, his pleas for technological justice tasting and sounding like sour grapes. Girardi has done a great job navigating around the crushing injuries and baffling slumps, but this was not his finest hour.

The manager also swung and missed -- like his star-studded sluggers who managed a grand sum of four hits -- when asked about Cano's hustle, or lack thereof. Girardi claimed he had no problem with Cano's hustle, or lack thereof.

"Robbie plays fine for me," Girardi said. "And I am sure he is frustrated and I understand that. You work really hard to get to this point, and you want to be a part of the winning and contributing, and it is frustrating when you don't."

[+] EnlargeAnibal Sanchez
AP Photo/Paul SancyaAnibal Sanchez makes an underhand toss to first while Cano jogs down the line in the sixth.

Expressing frustration is understandable. Betraying your core responsibility as a professional athlete is not.

In the sixth inning, after Ichiro Suzuki small-balled his way onto first with a slow hopper that Detroit starter Anibal Sanchez couldn't handle, Cano offered something closer to a swinging bunt.

Cano had just watched Suzuki race down the line as if his Hall of Fame candidacy depended on it, his foot speed and competitive will leaving the rushed Tigers to fumble and bumble their way into trouble. Cano had also watched Jeter for years force infielders into hurried and errant throws by honoring DiMaggio's dogma of playing every game as if someone in the crowd is observing for the first time.

So what happens here in the middle of a scoreless game with the Yanks already down in the series, and down a captain? What happens when one of the sport's most talented hitters -- a player who should be desperate to deliver something, anything, of substance -- sends this potentially tricky bouncer to Sanchez's left?

The pitcher feels so comfortable fielding the ball that he throws the kind of underhand lob that a father might toss to his 4-year-old child. The pitcher does this because he knows Cano is running, and because he knows Cano doesn't run Ichiro/Jeter hard to first.

It didn't matter that the underhand throw was Charmin-soft, and it didn't matter that Cano -- nobody's idea of an Olympic sprinter -- might not have beaten it out at full blast. It did matter that Sanchez and the Tigers felt unburdened on the play because they knew Cano would take a lunchtime stroll down the line.

Girardi argued that the missed call on Cano's tag changed the dynamic of the game, maybe the series, as Detroit reliever Phil Coke would've felt more pressure trying to protect a 1-0 lead than a 3-0 lead. Yeah, it's a game of inches.

But the same logic explains why Cano's refusal to bust it is unforgivable. "No chance," the second baseman said when asked if he had a shot at converting his swinging bunt into first and second with nobody out. "No, no, no. I was going to be out."

We'll never know. And we'll never know if Cano would've gotten Delmon Young on what could've been an inning-ending double play in the seventh. Jayson Nix fired to his partner, who lost control of the ball as he tried to throw it to first, allowing Avisail Garcia to score the first run, the winning run.

"I didn't get a grip on the ball," Cano said.

He didn't have a grip on the urgency of the moment, either.

A lot of people -- this writer included -- have celebrated Cano's ability to tame this maddening sport. Cano often gets the benefit of the doubt from the fans and the news media because of his fluid brilliance and engaging smile. My father -- never impressed by much -- has been watching the New York Yankees from DiMaggio to Jeter, and rarely volunteers a word of praise for the Clipper or the Captain.

But don't get him started on Cano, the most graceful Yankee of them all. Only now the second baseman and slugger charged to carry a team with no Jeter (literally) and no A-Rod (figuratively) has completely come undone.

"He's struggling right now just like anyone else," Long said. "It's not just Robbie. ... But when things don't go your way and you start to struggle a little bit, you feel added pressure. I'm sure he feels some added pressure."

Long went on and on about Cano's bum luck, about the liner he ripped off Doug Fister's hand and into a Game 1 out defined by -- what else? -- another missed umpiring call. "I've been swinging good," Cano agreed, "but they're not falling."

The only thing falling here is the No. 1 seed, right into Verlander's trap. That truth left an exasperated Girardi to all but beg for Cano and the rest of his alleged hitters to make adjustments, any adjustments, before they're swept out of the series.

"They are not going to put it on a tee for us," Girardi said.

In the end, these aren't supposed to be Raul Ibañez's Yankees. These are supposed to be Robinson Cano's Yankees, at least on the offensive side of the ball, and Cano didn't do any better in the two-hole Sunday than he did before Jeter went down.

But this isn't about hitting a baseball -- maybe the hardest thing to do in pro sports -- as much as it is about delivering maximum effort, maybe the easiest thing to do in October.

If Cano wants to play like the fallen Jeter, here's a hint:

Trying like him would be a hell of a start.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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