Leyland has high praise for Cano

Robinson Cano takes batting practice during a workout

Robinson Cano takes batting practice during a workout at Yankee Stadium. (Sept. 29, 2011) (Credit: Thomas A. Ferrara)

DETROIT -- The chants of "MVP! MVP!" came from the Yankee Stadium crowd during most of Curtis Granderson's at-bats in the first two games of the ALDS, and for good reason.

He led the major leagues with 136 runs, ranked second with 41 home runs and was third with 119 RBIs, which led the American League.

Granderson had a rough final few weeks, but he carried the Yankees' offense during portions of the first half and did damage pretty much all season.

Yet he's not the player who engenders the most respect from opposing teams. "It's Cano who you really fear in that lineup," one opposition scout said before ALDS Game 2. And he didn't mean it as a shot at Granderson, who tripled home Derek Jeter and scored on Alex Rodriguez's grounder to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead in the first inning of ALDS Game 3 Monday night.

Granderson played for Tigers manager Jim Leyland before the centerfielder was traded to the Yankees prior to the 2010 season, and Leyland is among his biggest boosters. But Leyland reserves his most glowing praise for Cano, who shook off a subpar first half to hit .302 with 28 homers and 118 RBIs this season.

Cano had seven homers and 29 RBIs in 28 games in August, hitting .345, and he hit five homers with 21 RBIs in 26 games in September, a month when opponents all but stopped pitching to him in crucial spots. In September, he was issued seven of his 11 intentional walks on the season. Granderson was not intentionally walked this year.

Cano hit .318 with runners in scoring position, .444 (8-for-18) with the bases loaded and .455 (10-for-22) with a runner on third and two outs this season.

"Well, I think Robinson Cano is a star, a superstar," Leyland said, mentioning one of his own players, Miguel Cabrera, as being in the same category.

Cano came up huge for the Yankees in their 9-3 victory in ALDS Game 1, hitting a grand slam and driving in six runs with three two-out hits.

"He threw a slider and it didn't do anything," Leyland said of Al Alburquerque's 0-and-1 pitch to Cano that wound up in the rightfield seats. "One of the best hitters in baseball hit it out."

To almost everyone's surprise, Cano, representing the winning run in Game 2, bounced out to second to end the Yankees' ninth-inning rally in Game 2, a 5-3 loss.

Leyland hinted that had it not been raining, he might have had Jose Valverde intentionally walk Cano with runners on first and second and two outs in the ninth and pitch to Rodriguez.

"That's a great question. It is," he said. "You know what, I thought about it. But that other guy [Rodriguez] has been known for the dramatics, and I figured it's wet, it's slippery, one gets away, one run is in, something like that would happen, a ground ball, a ball slips, I just couldn't do it. Hit a ball in the infield, you get him over there and somebody throws it away, the game is tied. [Walking Cano] did cross my mind. Good question."

Leyland didn't go as far as to call Cano the best in the sport, but he came close. "I'm not going to say the best. Sometimes that's a bad choice of words," he said. "My staff thinks he's one of the top five players in all of baseball without question. He's a great player. He's one of the best players I've ever seen . . . He's just a tremendous player that came up huge [Saturday] night for them in Game 1, and we have the utmost respect for him, obviously."

Joe Girardi moved Cano to the third spot in the batting order -- and Mark Teixeira to the fifth spot -- before the second-to-last game of the season, in part because of Teixeira's struggles against righthanders but more because of Cano's torrid second half. There also is the possibility that Cano will get better protection from Rodriguez than Nick Swisher and won't be walked intentionally as often.

Batting third is a responsibility Cano takes seriously. "Well, I mean, it's big," he said. "It's really big . . . But like I said, that's anything -- that's one thing I'm gonna change my game. I'm not going to put pressure on myself, well, I'm in the third spot. I'll just go out there and just do what I did in the regular season. Do my job with men in scoring position."As for the "MVP" chants going Granderson's way, Cano smiled. "That's something not in my mind," he said. "We have to give credit to Granderson the way he helped the team the whole year. Right now, my focus is in the playoffs. So I'll let you guys decide that. Like I said, my goal is just to win it all."

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