With their season absolutely on the line last week, the Tampa Bay Rays were not taking any chances. In the tight second game of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, they intentionally walked Robinson Cano. Twice.
Cano had beaten them with a two-run double in the eighth inning of the first game, after which B.J. Upton said, "One of the best hitters in the game came up with a big hit. What are you going to do?"
What you do, evidently, is not give him a chance to hit a home run, as he did in his first at-bat of that second game (which the Rays lost anyway).
One day earlier, Cano had made the play of the game on the very last swing. He took a flip from Derek Jeter for a close play at the bag and -- with a throw that maybe no other second baseman has an arm strong enough to make -- turned it into a double play.
That is the two-lane path that Cano's evolution has taken: He can decide a game on either side of the ball. He may or may not be a top contender for American League Most Valuable Player -- he backed off a comment from last week in which he had indicated that Cano would choose Cano -- but he has accomplished something distinctive this season:
On a team of icons, record- breakers and future Hall of Famers, Cano has emerged as the Yankees' best all-around player.
"Oh, right now, there's no question about that," said Larry Bowa, the MLB Network analyst and former Yankees coach who took a strong interest in Cano's development. "He is as good as anybody in the big leagues at his position. Look for him to win a batting title soon, he has that talent. And he is an unbelievable fielder with an unbelievable arm.
"He's always had tremendous tools. He has come to realize you have to work at this. It doesn't come that easy. But he has a great work ethic," said Bowa, who will be active in the postseason as a voice on MLB Tonight. "He wants to be recognized as the best. He likes to play in big games. Lefthanders don't bother him, righthanders don't bother him. The only thing he really can't do is steal bases."
Not that the Yankees need him to try. Who needs to have him thinking about running, when he is so effective at driving in other runners?
He is a rare power hitter among second basemen (28 home runs, 118 RBIs this season), a solid No. 5 hitter who was a solid cleanup batter when Alex Rodriguez, another of his mentors, was on the disabled list. Cano batted .444 this season with the bases loaded.
"I think it's an MVP-caliber type of year, what he's done for us, him and Grandy," Joe Girardi said, referring to Curtis Granderson, who has more home runs and might get more MVP attention because of it. "I think [Cano] has had a very good year. He's a guy who just seems to get stronger as the season goes on."
After a promotional stickball game at Major League Baseball's Fan Cave last week, Cano basically agreed about his MVP qualifications, which caused a stir. A day later, in the Yankees' clubhouse, he explained that he had just responded to a question about how he would vote and he replied that he would vote for himself, the way a president does in a general election. "There's a difference in the way you say it and the way they put it in the paper," he said.
When he was asked by reporters in the clubhouse to name the player who truly deserves to be the MVP, he said, "I would say, whoever you guys pick."
It never developed into a bona fide controversy, and being asked about it wasn't nearly as hard as being asked to rest for a day here or there. "Honestly, I don't like to sit on the bench and watch a game,'' Cano said. "I love this game so much, the more I play, the better I feel.
"You know what? When I'm home in the offseason, all I've got in my mind is to play 162 games," said the resident of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, who turns 29 in three weeks. "I don't want to sit around, take off every other day, anything like that."
One of his greatest achievements was overcoming the reputation of wanting to take it easy. That came about partly because of his graceful movements on the field that look almost casual and partly because he maybe occasionally didn't kill himself.
Bowa took care of that in 2006 and 2007, bringing him out an hour early for practice during spring training. "It helped that Alex was there. Alex came out early every day, too," Bowa said. "There was one day when [Cano] was coming out when we were coming in. I said, 'We're doing this on time. I'm not wasting my time.' It seemed like from that day on, he realized the importance of extra work and paying attention to detail."
That has shown up more than anywhere in his fielding. Bowa and Rodriguez convinced him to "respect every ground ball" and not to try to make a double play when it's not feasible. Cano got to the big leagues with his bat, but he has become a Gold Glove winner. "For me, that's a different way to win a game," he said. "It's the pitcher's best friend."
David Robertson, who shut down the Rays in a bases-loaded situation during the division clincher last week by inducing a double-play grounder to Cano, said, "Robbie is a great defender. He's got a lot of range, he's got a great arm and that allows him to a get to a lot of balls that other people wouldn't.''
Bowa said, "I had always thought that a guy I played with, Manny Trillo, had a great arm. But Robbie has by far the best arm for a second baseman. His accuracy is unbelievable."
Maybe just as unbelievable, for people who saw him slump through 2008, is his resolve. "Sometimes people see the way he moves with grace and don't necessarily equate that to toughness, but Robbie is a tough kid,'' Girardi said. "We've seen him get hit numerous times and not come out of games."
When you think about it, Cano had to be tough to withstand his start as a Yankee: He was summoned from Triple-A in 2005 when the Yankees were in a panic, setting off a series of moves that effectively ended Bernie Williams' career as a regular outfielder. And Cano started 2-for-23.
And now he is among the toughest outs in baseball.
"He's a great kid and I'm happy for him," said Bowa, adding that the two still text regularly. "He's turning into a great player. Not a good one, a great one."