Notes: September kind to Cano
Yankees second baseman finds groove after puzzling start
NEW YORK -- The regular season whittled down to its final week, Robinson Cano has delivered a message to American League pitchers. Gone are the days when hurlers could miss their spots by inches, trusting that the over-aggressive second baseman would bite on a borderline pitch.
"I was swinging at everything," Cano said. "In times like that, even if you get a fastball down the middle, you will foul it back."
Pitchers would be prudent not to try now. Cano has been hot for the last several months, rebounding from a slow start to bat .349 with 12 homers and 49 RBIs in his last 66 games entering Monday's play. The Yankees are closing in on a postseason berth, perhaps clinching as soon as Monday night, and Cano has been a major contributor.
"If you finish strong, that's when you feel good in your mind," Cano said. "This is when you go to the playoffs, and to be going good, that's what you want. When you're struggling, you're trying to figure out what's going on, and you have to put that stuff out of your mind."
For some reason, September seems to agree with Cano. The 24-year-old was surprised to learn that he owns the highest September batting average of any active Major Leaguer (minimum 200 at-bats), going 3-for-5 to raise his career mark in the month to .361 (107-for-296).
"It's not like I've done something different," Cano said. "The thing is, this is the time when you really need to do your job. This month is when things are ending, and you want to finish strong."
Part of the reason the Yankees were able to pursue a strong defensive player like first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz over the winter was because general manager Brian Cashman believed the club would gain production from non-traditional power positions like second base, where Cano offered 41 doubles and 15 home runs in 2006 despite missing all of July with a left hamstring strain.
The maneuver didn't look as sharp early this season, when the Yankees were going through their worst stretches and sitting eight games under .500 on May 29. But Cano caught fire near the beginning of July, heeding advice from hitting coach Kevin Long to become more calm at the plate and working in drills to improve his selectivity.
Cano's last 75 games entering Monday's play saw him slug 15 homers and drive in 56 runs, exceeding his 2007 statistics in nearly every power category. Though he will not challenge for a batting title, Cano still has a chance to bat over .300 for the second time in three Major League campaigns.
"The biggest thing for me has been finishing the season healthy," Cano said. "It's not like last year, when I was on the DL and the team needed me. This year, I've been here the whole season. It's been great. Everything is better than last year."
It's magic: The Yankees' magic number for securing a postseason berth sat at two entering Monday's game, meaning any combination of Yankees wins and Tigers losses would at least secure the AL Wild Card.
With the Yankees playing a matinee and the Tigers entertaining the Twins in an evening contest at Comerica Park, the possibility is alive that New York could not have an opportunity to celebrate until it has already landed in Florida on Monday night.
"That'd be fine," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "Whatever it takes, we certainly accept it. It's a long season, and we're looking forward to it."
In recent weeks, Torre has refused to answer questions about the Yankees' postseason involvement unless prefaced with an "if," but the reality of the club's qualification is sinking in. In the event that his club qualifies, Torre said the Yankees would return to New York after Sunday's game and have Oct. 1 off before working out "somewhere" on Tuesday.
Launch time: The Rocket is idling. Though Roger Clemens remains listed as the probable starter for the Yankees' series opener Tuesday at Tampa Bay, his physical presence on the mound at Tropicana Field is still anything but a certainty.
The Yankees are exercising extreme caution with Clemens, who tweaked his left hamstring while running on Thursday and may make only one more start before the conclusion of the regular season.
"As long as he touches the ball and gets a little work this week, I don't think he needs to go out there and pitch six or seven innings," Torre said. "I certainly don't want him going out there and trying to make do."
If Clemens is not able to pitch on Tuesday, Torre named Matt DeSalvo and Kei Igawa as possible starters. Ian Kennedy, sidelined with an upper back strain, is not expected to pitch for the rest of the week to ensure that he is available for a potential playoff roster assignment.
Nothing doing: Alex Rodriguez's representative denied that he has made contact with a potential bidder for the Cubs regarding his client, refuting a report on New York Magazine's Web site.
Agent Scott Boras told The Associated Press that he has had no talks with either John Canning or Mark Cuban regarding A-Rod's potential availability this offseason. Rodriguez can contractually opt out of the final three years of his contract with the Yankees, forfeiting the remaining $27 million on his deal.
"Great players with great demand create great rumors," Boras told the AP. "While I would enjoy having lunch with Mark Cuban and Canning, at this point of the year, that conversation would not include Alex Rodriguez. I have not talked to anyone."
New record set: With 53,281 tickets sold for Monday's 81st home game, the Yankees recorded their 50th sellout of the season and completed the 2007 regular-season schedule with an unofficial final attendance of 4,271,356, setting a new franchise record.
New York sold out 32 of its final 34 home dates at Yankee Stadium and drew at least 50,000 fans in its final 63 home games. The previous record was last season's tally of 4,243,780, marking the third consecutive season the Yankees have drawn 4 million fans. The Blue Jays are the only other club to accomplish the feat.
Bombers bits: Melky Cabrera leads the Major Leagues with 14 assists as a center fielder, the third-highest total by a Yankees center fielder in the last 50 years. The others are Bobby Murcer (15 in 1970, 14 in 1973) and Elliott Maddox (18 in 1974). ... Derek Jeter owned a 10-game hitting streak entering Monday and had 17 hits in his last 40 at-bats. The Yankees captain extended the streak to 11 games with a double to lead off the sixth inning on Monday. ... Toronto starter A.J. Burnett was scratched for personal reasons.
Coming up: The Yankees hit the road for their final six games of the regular season, opening a three-game series on Tuesday at Tampa Bay. Clemens (6-6, 4.18 ERA) is scheduled to start for the Yankees, while right-hander Jason Hammel (2-5, 5.88 ERA) will counter for the Devil Rays. First pitch from Tropicana Field is scheduled for 7:10 p.m. ET on the YES Network.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.