Don't ya know? Cano thriving at No. 5

NEW YORK -- Robinson Cano has a long way to go to make anyone forget Joe DiMaggio. But that's OK. Right now, he and the Yankees will settle for making us forget about Hideki Matsui.

Remember when all the preseason talk centering around whether or not Cano, one of the game's great talents as well as one of its notorious free swingers, could possibly fill the huge hole left in the Yankees lineup by the departure of their previous No. 5 hitter, who also happened to be the World Series MVP?

We're not hearing too much about that anymore, especially since the old No. 5 hitter is now mired at .240 with seven homers and 28 RBIs for the Los Angeles Angels while the new No. 5 hitter is batting .373, just a shade behind Justin Morneau for the major league lead, with 12 homers and 42 RBI, both of which place Cano among the top five in all of baseball.

And oh, yeah, he has now hit in 16 straight games, not enough to make the original No. 5, the great Joe DiMaggio, nervous but enough so that his teammates, in the great tradition of baseball superstitions, prohibit anyone from mentioning it within their earshot.

"We really can't talk about hitting streaks or anything like that," Nick Swisher said, "But it sure is a lot of fun to watch him."

Let the debate over who should be hitting second in the Yankee order rage on from now until Labor Day, and we can argue over whether or not Johnny Damon should be playing in Detroit instead of the Bronx until our faces sprout pinstripes. One-third of the way through the 2010 season, the discussion regarding the No. 5 slot in the lineup has officially been settled.

Cano had three more hits in the Yankees' 9-1 victory over the helpless Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday night at the Stadium, as well as three more runs scored -- he now has 43, which puts him third in the league -- two more RBIs and a monster home run in the seventh inning that he hit as effortlessly as flicking a fly off a screen door.

"Robbie's really emerged as an elite player," Joe Girardi said. "You look at what he's done so far and he's one of the best players in the game. And the biggest thing to me is his patience at the plate, waiting to get his pitch. And when he gets his pitch, he's dangerous."

It echoed what Reggie Jackson said in spring training: "You ask me, the kid at second base is the best hitter on the team, bar none."

At that time, Cano was still a promise waiting to be kept, a vastly talented player who had hit .342 his second year in the league, while also developing a reputation for undisciplined and lackadaisical play. He was even benched by Girardi two years ago for loafing in the field.

But the change in Cano has been unmistakable over the past two seasons, and especially this season. With great responsibility comes either great results or great failure, and the burden of being asked to carry the heart of the Yankees order seems to have brought out the best in Cano. And it's not a New York-based secret, either; Cano is by far the leading vote-getter among second basemen in All-Star Game voting, with nearly twice as many tallies as the runner-up, Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox.

Not only does Cano lead the Yankees in hitting (he raised his average to .373 Wednesday night) home runs and RBIs, he is also the current dugout favorite for must-see at-bats. "Guys are just looking at each other in the dugout now saying, 'Man, let's see how hard he hits this next one,'" Swisher said. "It just seems like every time he gets up I expect him to get a hit. And I can't tell you there's many people I think that about."

Cano's brilliance is all the more apparent when you realize that he is getting very little help from the two sluggers hitting before him, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, both of whom are slogging through sub-par seasons by their standards. And due to injury, Cano has rarely had the same No. 6 hitter behind him.

Wednesday night, the Yankees put out a lineup they'd probably like to use every night if they could, with Jorge Posada returning from the DL to reassume the No. 6 slot. "It's great because for the first time in a long time, we got almost everybody back," Cano said. "It makes it better for everybody."

Still, Cano hasn't needed much help. Except, of course, from himself -- because even though he leads the team in on-base percentage (.417) and has struck out fewer than any other regular who hasn't spent time on the DL, he admits it's still a struggle to suppress his natural instinct -- which is to swing at anything from his shoetops to the bill of his cap.

"I'm an aggressive guy who likes to swing the bat, so it's not easy," he admits. "But I started doing it in spring training and into the season and it seems to be working pretty good. But it's still hard for me."

He just makes it look easy -- the same way he makes turning the double play pivot look as simple as walking through a revolving door. "He has a natural ease to him," Girardi has said. "He has outstanding hitting mechanics and unbelievable hand-eye coordination."

And finally, the discipline that makes it all come together. He still needs to hit in another 41 straight games to make anyone put him into the same sentence with DiMaggio, but through 54 games this year, he has pretty much erased Matsui from the conversation.

And that in itself is something to talk about.

Game notes

Phil Hughes was brilliant again in earning his seventh win, tying him with teammate Andy Pettitte and two others for most in the AL. He pitched seven innings of six-hit ball, striking out seven and walking one while working virtually with two pitches, his fastball and curve. "My cutter was flat all night, so I scrapped it," he said. ... Swisher, who seems to have been anointed the No. 2 hitter for now, had three hits and three RBIs, including a two-run double in the second. ... Posada, returning from a broken foot, ran well in scoring from first on Curtis Granderson's two-run double in the second. ... Mark Teixeira reported no problems with his left foot, swollen by a foul tip on Tuesday night, but went hitless in five at-bats. ... The win was the Yankees' fourth straight, their second-longest winning streak of the year; and their 33-20 record matches their high-water mark of the season, 13 games over. 500, first achieved on May 8 (21-8) after a 14-3 blowout of the Red Sox at Fenway Park. ... Pitching matchup for Thursday's matinee: LHP CC Sabathia (4-3, 4.16) vs. RHP Kevin Millwood (0-5, 3.89). Sabathia hasn't won a game since May 3.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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