|Robinson Cano isn't the AL MVP, but he's been the Yankees' best player when they needed him the most. (US Presswire)|
NEW YORK -- On the day Miguel Cabrera won baseball's first Triple Crown in 45 years, it doesn't seem right to say this.
But CC Sabathia just did.
"When Robbie's on, he's the best hitter in the game," Sabathia said Wednesday night.
That's Robbie, as in Robinson Cano, who didn't win a single crown but did end the regular season as the hottest (if not the best) hitter in the game. That's Cano, who was hottest when the Yankees needed him most.
Or, that should read, when they needed him most so far.
The Yankees were somewhat subdued in their celebration of a American League East title that they didn't clinch until the final day of the season. That may have been a result of a 14-2 win over the Red Sox that took all the drama out of the clinching, but it was more because as much as the Yankees wanted to get this far, their season will still be called a failure if they don't get any further.
We shouldn't minimize what they did, especially given the way we've seen other collapses the last two Septembers. While the Yankees let a one-time 10-game lead slip several times to zero, they never allowed the Orioles to move as much as half a game ahead.
As it turned out, the Rangers' collapse in the West not only helped hand the A's a division title, but also helped the Yankees clinch the league's best record.
"You see how difficult it is," manager Joe Girardi said. "I mean, Texas is a very good team."
So are the Yankees, no matter how many times we call them old (they are), no matter how many times we wonder about the depth in their starting rotation (it's still a concern), and no matter how many times we wonder whether they're too dependent on the home run (but at least they hit a lot of them).
"It has not been an easy season," Girardi said. "You look up, and we've won 95 games."
They won the last six in large part because Cano became the best hitter in the game (small, nine-game sample size). He ended the season with a streak of nine straight multi-hit games, the longest run in the big leagues in five years, and tied with Kevin Youkilis (2007) for the longest streak in 10 years (since Bernie Williams did it in 10 straight in 2002).
He had two two-run home runs and a two-run single in Wednesday's rout, and both home runs (like most Cano home runs) didn't need the benefit of Yankee Stadium's short fences.
The Yankees, understandably, did anything they could to avoid playing Friday, when baseball will have its first one-game win-or-you're-out wild-card night. But the result of winning the division and finishing with the best record is that Cano now has to take three days off, before the Yankees begin the playoffs Sunday in either Texas or Baltimore.
Cano also won't get to bring these Red Sox pitchers with him, but it would be unfair to him to say that he just beats up on bad pitching.
Actually, while the last two Octobers have brought the Yankees playoff disappointment, Cano has shown real signs of becoming an October force.
Two years ago, in the six-game loss to the Rangers in the ALCS, Cano batted .348, and homered four times. Last year, in the five-game first-round loss to the Tigers, he drove in nearly a third of the Yankees' 28 runs. Even in Game 5, Cano's seventh-inning single loaded the bases with one out in a game the Yankees trailed by two runs, but they scored only on a bases-loaded walk, and Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher struck out as they went on to lose by one run.
You get the sense that the Yankees will need him in the days or weeks to come, particularly since Rodriguez seems no longer capable of being a middle-of-the-order threat (his double Wednesday broke a string of 67 at-bats without an extra-base hit), and Mark Teixeira still seems affected by the time he missed with a calf injury.
Teixeira's injury was one of many for the Yankees this year, one big reason why the season seemed so difficult for them.
"I was concerned about our health," Girardi said. "It seemed like whenever we'd get someone back, we'd lose someone."
They overcame a season-ending injury to Mariano Rivera, because they had overpaid Rafael Soriano to be a setup man, and he was able to step in and have an outstanding year. They also lost outfielder Brett Gardner for much of the year, and lost Rodriguez and Teixeira for significant stretches.
The depth of their $200 million roster saved them, and so did their ability to hit the ball over the fence. They led the majors with 245 home runs, breaking a franchise record they set in 2009.
Cano was part of that record, too, but he only hit 25 in '09. He spent much of that season batting sixth and seventh, and was still hitting there during the World Series.
The Yankees count on him much more now, and while his 33 home runs this year made him no threat to Cabrera's Triple Crown (nor did his .313 average or his 94 RBI), it was still another career high.
There's little doubt now that he's the centerpiece of the Yankee lineup. If they don't rely on him the way the Tigers do on Cabrera, they still realize that he can carry them when he's this hot.
Is he the best hitter in the game?
I'm not going there, not in this season, not on this night. But when you see Cano on a hot streak like this, it's easy to believe it.