Robinson Cano used to be the rising star.
On a roster well-stocked with impressive resumes, Cano used to blend in easily, lost among his veteran teammates. But as the Yankees begin the ALDS Sunday night, tasked with knocking off the upstart Baltimore Orioles, there is no doubt about who drives the offense.
"He can carry a club,'' manager Joe Girardi said. "He can say jump on, let's go. It's great to have a guy like that in your lineup.''
As the Yankees fought off the Orioles down the stretch, Cano provided the firepower. Since Sept. 1, he has hit .347 with six homers and 24 RBIs in 31 games. He finished with nine straight multi-hit games, going 24-for-39 with three homers and 14 RBIs. Even with the likes of Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez in the lineup, he has established himself as the Yankees' most dangerous threat.
"No question,'' said one longtime executive, who praised Cano's hitting fundamentals, mechanics and IQ.
Cano's ascent is in line with his improvement in the postseason. He once struggled in October. Beginning with his first playoff appearance in 2005 and ending with the 2009 World Series run, Cano hit .217 with two homers and 14 RBIs.
But beginning in the 2010 playoffs -- when he went toe-to-toe with the Rangers' Josh Hamilton in the ALCS -- Cano is hitting .333 with six home runs and 15 RBIs in 14 games. In that span, Cano knocked in 21 percent of the runners on base during his at-bats, compared to 14 percent in his previous Octobers.
"This game is about the more that you play, the more that you learn,'' Cano said. "So the more you play in the playoffs, the more you get experience, you're going to hit in big situations. The first few years, I didn't get my job done. When you're in those situations, those are the kind of things you learn. You want to go back and get the same chance and just be able to produce and help the team to win a game.''
From experience, Cano said he has learned to prepare for the scrutiny. In the last few years, he has taken to envisioning himself coming through in pressure situations. He believes the positive reinforcement has helped carry him through.
As he showcased his game down the stretch, he appeared to find something that works. In the final nine games, with the Yankees fighting off the Orioles for the division title, Cano hit .615 as the Yankees went 6-3 and finished two games ahead of Baltimore.
Cano capped that impressive run with a 4-for-4, two-homer, six-RBI game in a season-ending blowout of the Red Sox.
Said Girardi: "That's what he can do.''
Cano, who hit a career-high 33 home runs, finished the season with 94 RBIs, a total that was lowered by his struggles earlier in the season with with runners in scoring position. But those issues seem to be behind him. For the Yankees, who will need production from their best hitter, the timing couldn't be better.
"I don't put negative stuff in my mind,'' he said. "If you have a bad game with men in scoring position, you put it aside and play the next game. I would say that's why at the end, I was able to do my job with men in scoring position. If you sit down and think about it, you're not going to concentrate at the plate if you're thinking about it.''