“When he gets a hit, he smiles like he’s never gotten a hit in his life,” Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said of his double-play partner.
Cano smiled plenty Sunday night, smiled after each of his three run-scoring hits — a grand slam and two doubles — in the Yankees’ 9-3 victory over the Tigers in Game 1 of the Division Series.
Cano’s six RBI matched a Yankees postseason franchise record, one accomplished only three times previously. His performance validated manager Joe Girardi’s recent decision to elevate him from fifth to third in the batting order.
Or did it?
Cano is so obviously the Yankees’ best hitter — better than Curtis Granderson, Jeter, A-Rod and the rest — maybe the real question is: What took Girardi so long?
Ah, Girardi can smile, too — at least he isn’t required to manage against Cano. That honor falls to Tigers manager Jim Leyland, and Cano vividly demonstrated Sunday night how frustrating the experience can be.
Leyland summoned right-hander Al Alburquerque to face the left-handed hitting Cano in the game’s pivotal moment — two outs, bases loaded in the sixth inning with the Yankees leading, 4-1.
“That’s one for everyone else to second guess,” Leyland groused as he recalled the decision that led to Cano’s slam, a move that indeed was not as illogical as it might have appeared.
Alburquerque was an absolute weapon during the regular season, stranding 31 of 34 inherited runners, holding left-handed hitters to a .176 batting average and producing the highest swing-and-miss percentage of any major-league reliever … without allowing a single home run.
A left-handed replacement for righty starter Doug Fister would not have given the Tigers any particular advantage. Cano had almost identical splits this season — an .884 OPS against righties and an .879 OPS against lefties.
Leyland said he would have summoned lefty Daniel Schlereth and saved Alburquerque if the Yankees’ previous hitter, Curtis Granderson, had increased the Yankees’ lead with a hit. But Fister walked Granderson, and Leyland, trying to keep the Tigers within three runs, viewed Alburquerque as his best option.
“To me, that was a no-brainer,” Leyland said.
Well, Cano made Leyland look dumb. Cano makes a lot of managers look dumb. Cano hit a hanging 0-1 slider over the right-field wall, and suddenly the Yankees’ lead was 8-1.
“Well, I mean, obviously I was surprised,” Cano said when asked about Leyland’s decision to use a righty against him.
But really, what did it matter?
Cano finally faced a lefty in the eighth — Schlereth — and hit an RBI double to center. His first hit, an RBI double off Fister in the fifth, bounced off the top of the left-field wall.
He hits to all fields, against all pitching, all the time.
“He doesn’t change his approach,” Girardi said. “He’s going to take what the pitcher gives him. And he knows how to use the whole field. He knows how to hit the ball out all over the ballpark.
“A lot of times the last thing that comes for a young player is learning how to pull the ball and when to pull the ball. I think Robbie has figured that out. It’s one of the things that has made him such a dangerous hitter.”
The Yankees’ No. 3 hitter, at last.
The third spot in the batting order customarily is reserved for a team’s best hitter, but Girardi wasn’t simply acting out of ceremony when he elevated Cano from the fifth spot and dropped Mark Teixeira from third to fifth in the Yankees’ lineup.
Girardi was concerned that teams would pitch around Cano to get to Nick Swisher, a trend that began to develop in the final weeks of the season. Cleanup man Alex Rodriguez, in theory, offers better protection for Cano, though A-Rod went 0-for-5 in the opener and still looks rusty coming off knee surgery.
In any case, Cano was in the middle of everything Sunday night, just the way a No. 3 hitter should be. His grand slam was the first by a Yankees in the postseason since Ricky Ledee hit one in Game 4 of the 1999 ALCS. Cano also hit three slams during the regular season, and is now 9-for-19 with seven extra-base hits and 31 RBI with the bases loaded in 2011.
That’s a mouthful. But Cano is a handful.
Leyland needs to find an octopus to pitch in relief. A simple lefty or righty isn’t enough.