David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Between Alex Rodriguez's back page-hogging return and the Yankees' dimming playoff hopes, we sort of forgot about the pending free agency of Robinson Cano.
You can bet Cano hasn't.
And that's a good thing for the Yankees, at least for the moment, before getting into the whole $200-million question. Other than Ivan Nova -- the club's de facto ace -- the team's rotation is running on fumes, which makes this the perfect time to have a highly motivated Cano prepped for a September contract push.
All Cano did Saturday was drive in both runs in Nova's 2-0 shutout of the Orioles, and there is a sense that, coming off his bruised left hand, he's only warming up.
Cano ripped an RBI double in the first inning and an insurance homer in the eighth that zipped like a bullet into the rightfield bleachers.
It went so far, so fast, that we felt inclined to ask Cano if he can hammer a pitch any harder than that.
"No,'' he said, smiling. "I hit that one pretty good.''
He kept grinning when the subject of his contract negotiations came up.
Before this season began, the Yankees behaved as if re-signing Cano was a foregone conclusion. Brian Cashman went as far as to say in spring training that he had made a "significant offer'' to Cano's then-agent, Scott Boras.
While it was out of character for Boras to even consider extending a client during his walk season, Cano seemed to be a special case, and a solid long-term fit for a Yankees team of injured megastars and a rapidly aging core.
But two months later, in a shocking turnaround, Cano dumped Boras and hired Jay Z's new agency, Roc Nation Sports, to represent him. Negotiations immediately cooled, and after so much talk about a deal getting wrapped up at midseason, we're now 30 days away from the possible end of Cano's Yankees career.
The likelihood of a deal happening before that seems remote. Cashman on Saturday refused to say whether the Yankees were continuing to negotiate with Cano, adding only that he "wouldn't characterize'' the status. That sounds like a shutdown, and Cano chuckled after the game when asked if he currently is discussing a contract extension with the team.
"We're just talking about baseball right now,'' Cano said.
No doubt he's fine with that. He dodged a serious scare Tuesday night in Toronto when J.A. Happ nailed him on the left hand with a 90-mph fastball, considering that a fracture would have put an end to his season and the Yankees' slim postseason chances.
But after sitting two days with only a bruise, Cano should be recharged for a profitable month ahead regardless of where the team finishes.
Throughout his nine-year career, Cano has a .905 OPS in September/October -- his highest of any month -- and it was a ridiculous .999 during that stretch last season to go with a .347 batting average, six homers and 24 RBIs in 31 games.
Fast-forward to this year and Cano is heating up again, batting .422 (19-for-45) in the last 12 games with five doubles, three homers and 13 RBIs.
Joe Girardi believes that two-day break actually may have worked to Cano's advantage.
"I didn't really want to see him get hit in the hand, but he got a couple days off, which probably helped," Girardi said. "He's the kind of guy that has had a good September and can really carry a club."
The Yankees also did Cano a huge favor by trading for Alfonso Soriano on July 26. That move not only supplied them with desperately needed righthanded power but finally gave Cano some protection in the lineup, and he's noticed the change in how opposing teams have attacked him since then.
"You can see the difference now,'' Cano said. "They've got to throw me a strike. Before, they were making me chase pitches. It's a big difference.''
Soriano has been lethal since joining the Yankees. He had 11 home runs in August, the first time he's hit double-digits during a calendar month since September 2007.
As long as Soriano remains dangerous and the Yankees continue to field a deeper lineup with Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter, Cano should be difficult to contain in the days ahead.
Whether it works out for the Yankees still is up in the air. But either way, Cano is going to get paid.