Scalding-hot hitters like Cano will try to carry their clubs in October
NEW YORK -- On a deceptively muggy October night on the Bronx side of the Harlem River, Robinson Cano stood in the on-deck circle at Yankee Stadium in the sixth inning, alternately swinging his black-barreled bat and adjusting his batting-glove wristbands before pausing to remove his helmet and wipe his forearm across his brow.
Then his wait to bat grew longer when the Red Sox summoned a new pitcher to the mound, forcing the Yankees second baseman to endure a jog in from the bullpen and the reliever's subsequent eight warm-up pitches.
Neither the wait nor a new pitcher could cool down the game's hottest hitter.
Cano, who now has multiple hits in nine consecutive games, singled the third pitch he saw from Scott Atchison through the right side of the infield for his fourth hit and fifth and sixth runs batted in on the night. The Yankees went on to sweep their bitter rival Red Sox 14-2 and, more importantly, clinch their 13th division title in the last 17 years.
"He came up big these last two weeks for us," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "It's remarkable what he's done. Nine straight games with multiple hits -- that's pretty amazing."
This AL East crown -- which sets up an ALDS in which New York plays the wild card winner -- was more harrowing than most. The Yankees' division lead replicated a bell curve, as they took over first place on June 11, building it as high as 10 games on July 18 and, though never fully relinquishing it, falling into off-and-on tie at varying times in September before exhaling with relief as they held off the Orioles on Wednesday night.
No small part of the Yankees' stretch run drive was powered by Cano, who finished Wednesday night 4-for-4 with two homers and a walk and completed the season with those nine straight multi-hit games -- the longest such streak by a Yankee since Bernie Williams had 10 in 2002 -- for a total of 60 this season, which is tied for third in the majors. In that hot streak he went 24-for-39, a blistering .615 average.
His nine multi-hit games is two games longer than any other major leaguer in 2012 and the first time anyone has had more than seven since . . . Cano had a streak of eight in 2010.
"It's a great feeling," Cano said. "It just came on at the right time when we need to win games and be able to do the job."
For most of their run atop the division and before Cano's recent, otherworldly hot streak, the Yankees could count on near-metronomic production from their four-time All-Star second baseman. He finished the months of June, July, August and September with averages of .308, .309, .304 and .306 before clobbering the Red Sox for 10 hits and three homers in the three-game October series to finish the season at .313.
That late-season surge helped New York avoid the same fate as Texas, whose division lead did dissipate on the season's final day, as Oakland capped a three-game sweep with a 12-5 rout.
Now the Yankees have two days before they even learn the identity of their next opponent -- the Rangers host the Orioles on Friday night in the wild-card game -- and then fly to the winner's home city on Saturday before finally playing again on Sunday.
A few players who battled injuries in the past few weeks, such as Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, will probably benefit from the time off, but one wonders if the hot Yankees lineup -- Cano is merely the most remarkable hitter right now for a team averaging nearly seven runs per game for the past two weeks -- will suffer.
"I think he is [able to carry us]," Girardi said, "but we have a number of guys that have that ability to get extremely locked in and hot."
In the past fortnight Nick Swisher is batting .404 with a .516 on-base percentage and four home runs; Raul Ibañez is hitting .405 with four homers; and Ichiro Suzuki is hitting .333. Also, Curtis Granderson hit two homers Wednesday night and had three in the series against the Red Sox.
Hitting requires such rhythm and timing that streaking batters never want time off. New York will have workouts at both Yankee Stadium and at the host stadium before the game, and that practice time will be important to stay hot.
"It's going to be very difficult," Granderson said. "Try to take [the workouts] and go as full-speed as possible because you can't simulate 50,000 [fans] or pitchers throwing [in games], but you can still get your work in, work a good sweat up, get a little fatigue in and hope that carries over until we get ready to play."
When asked during his postgame press conference how he'd try to stay hot, Cano said his only plan for the night was to go home, get rest and then worry about the next game tomorrow. He said this with a pair of goggles resting atop his head, seemingly impervious even to the chill of the celebratory champagne.
Cano isn't the only hot hitter right now. Here are six more hitters streaking into the playoffs: