Last week, Robinson Cano’s problem was missing pitches and hitting balls right at fielders. He was even struggling to hit home runs during the net drill in batting practice when he is pitched to underhand by hitting coach Kevin Long.
He didn’t struggle with the drill three and a half hours before stepping in against Tampa Bay ace David Price and it carried over to Thursday night’s 5-3 victory. Cano had three hits, including a tiebreaking, two-run home run.
“That’s a drill we do often in the season,” Cano said. “Every time we do it I always feel pretty good. Today was a day that you had to face a tough lefty and you want to do it to stay [sharp].”
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When the Yankees took a late-night flight to Kansas City following last Wednesday’s 5-0 loss to the Orioles, Cano was hitting .255 with one home run and four RBI to go along with a .367 slugging percentage. He was coming off a game in which he struck out swinging twice with men on base against Jake Arrieta.
Since that fruitless night, Cano is hitting .393 (11-for-28) with two home runs and seven RBI. He insists he has done nothing different, other than just hit balls to where defenders can’t get them, but his swing has sounded different.
“[They’re] just falling down,” Cano said. “That’s what I was going through [earlier].”
“It’s great,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He just really changes our lineup because he’s so productive and he’s dangerous anytime he walks to the plate. We swung the bats extremely well against a very good pitcher and Robby was a part of it.”
Making Cano’s night even more meaningful was that it was against a southpaw. Cano’s career average off lefties through last season was .300, but through his first 44 at-bats against them this year, he had just nine hits and only one was not a single.
Cano had his second three-hit game of the year. His other was April 10 at Baltimore and over the next nine days, his average went from .304 to .241.
Cano’s struggles were so confounding that even Girardi made light of it, often joking with him during visits to the mound by saying, “‘Look, Robbie, look at all the green out there. You happened to hit it right to where the guy was standing. How do you do that?’”
Last night, Cano hit balls to vacant spots on the field.
He stroked a fastball to center field in the first and did the same thing in the third. That was before Price changed his strategy against the second baseman, who is now hitting .270 (10-for-38) off him.
Cano was not the only Yankee hitting Price, who nearly matched his career-high by allowing 11 hits in seven innings. Curtis Granderson hit his 11th home run of the season in the second while Alex Rodriguez had two hard hits against Price.
“We can do a lot better,” Cano said. “You see the lineup and only two guys have doing the job with men on base. But right now you see the way A-Rod, myself and Tex (Mark Teixeira), we’re starting to pick it up and not leave it to two guys.”
On the mound nobody can do any better than CC Sabathia has over his last five starts. He turned in eight dominant innings and allowing two unearned runs and seven hits along with 10 strikeouts.
“This was the best game he pitched all year,” Girardi said. “I thought he was brilliant. He shouldn’t have given up a run. [It was] groundball after groundball after groundball. I just thought his sinker was very good. I thought his changeup was very good. I felt his slider was very good. I felt he had everything working tonight and it was his best performance of the year.”
Sabathia would have had a shutout if not for two errors by Eduardo Nunez at third base. Nunez misplayed Brandon Guyer’s grounder in the first and threw wide of Cano at second base on a force play the following inning.
Sabathia truly shut it down after Nunez’s second error led to Tampa Bay taking a 2-0 lead. He retired 12-of-14 spanning the final out the second through the sixth, a period that included four straight strikeouts.
He also worked out of runners on first and second with two outs in the seventh by striking out B.J. Upton a third time. Sabathia finished his season-high 119-pitch outing by getting Carlos Pena to swing at a slider for a strikeout.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.