NEW YORK -- Jim Leyland had a great line about the last Yankee lineup he saw in October.
"Murderer's Row, and then Cano," the Tiger manager called it, back in 2006.
Robinson Cano, a very dangerous afterthought.
Long time ago, wasn't it?
Long enough that Cano has moved from being the least significant Yankee regular to the most significant, from the one you didn't want to forget to the one you can't forget.
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From ninth in the lineup to his deserved third spot, which manager Joe Girardi handed him last week and which he fully justified in the Yankees' playoff opener.
If the best news the Yankees got out of their 9-3, two-day, Friday-Saturday win over the Tigers was that Ivan Nova looked once again like an effective starting pitcher, the biggest message was sent by Cano, who looked very much like he belongs in his new home in the batting order.
He had the biggest hit of the game, a two-out double off the top of the wall that broke a 1-1 tie in the fifth. He had the hit that broke the game open, a grand slam that made it 8-1 in the sixth.
He became the fourth Yankee ever with six RBI in a postseason game (the last one, Hideki Matsui, became the World Series MVP when he did it).
And the great thing for the Yankees was that none of it was a real surprise. None of it was unexpected.
This is what Robinson Cano is now. This is what the Yankees need, at a time when cleanup hitter Alex Rodriguez looks 36 going on 56, and when former third-place hitter Mark Teixeira looks better suited for hitting fifth.
The Yankees had an all-around great first game of the playoffs, and the 24-year-old Nova's performance (6 1/3 innings, two runs) had to be incredibly encouraging to a team that has rotation worries. But the Yankees also know that there will be games this month when they need to rely on their lineup, and that means games where they'll be relying on Cano.
"Yeah," Derek Jeter said. "He's the guy you like to see up."
He's the guy the Yankees like to see up. If you don't like the Yankees, he's the guy you most certainly don't want to see up.
"He gives other teams' managers headaches," Russell Martin said.
Leyland got the headaches Saturday, and the second-guessing, all because of Cano.
Cano's fifth-inning double came against Doug Fister, the right-hander who took over for Justin Verlander when Game 1 resumed Saturday night. His sixth-inning slam came against Al Alburquerque, the right-handed reliever that Leyland brought in with the bases loaded and two out.
Leyland had lefty Phil Coke warming, but he understood that Cano is immune to lefty specialists. His left-right splits this year were basically even (.884 OPS vs. righties, .879 vs. lefties). And Alburquerque was very good this year against left-handed hitters.
"To me that was a no-brainer," Leyland said, citing all those numbers. "[But Alburquerque] threw a slider, and it didn't do anything. One of the best hitters in baseball hit it out."
That's how Leyland describes Cano now, as one of the best hitters in the game. Of course, that's how everyone describes Cano now.
He was good enough this year, and especially down the stretch this year, that you could make a good argument for Cano as the Yankees' MVP, and even as the American League MVP.
In fact, it was a little funny to hear the Yankee Stadium crowd chanting "M-V-P, M-V-P" so loudly when Curtis Granderson batted in the sixth, and then not continuing the chant when Cano came to the plate.
Not that any of that seemed to bother Cano one bit. Not that anything seems to bother Cano one bit.
"Robbie has fun," Jeter said. "Nothing seems to bother him. He always smiles. When he gets a hit, he smiles like he's never gotten a hit before in his life."
He smiled back in 2006, too, when he was a 23-year-old who hit .342 in the regular season but just .133 (2-for-15) in that playoff series against the Tigers. He wasn't the goat then, because he wasn't the focus.
The Yankees didn't rely on him then. They relied on him a little more the next year, a fair amount more when they won the World Series a couple of years later (with Cano hitting sixth and seventh), and even more when he moved up to fifth when Matsui departed after 2009.
He stayed in that fifth spot through last year and for most of this season, too. It wasn't until the final days of the season that Girardi flip-flopped Teixeira and Cano, in effect acknowledging that his 28-year-old second baseman is now the most important guy in the lineup.
He's no afterthought now, dangerous or otherwise.
Now you'd have to say, if it's still Murderer's Row, it starts with Cano.