Yankee optimism? Robbie's a reason

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Through the first 27 games of the season, Robinson Cano, the consensus selection as the best hitter in the Yankees' lineup and the man named before the season to replace Alex Rodriguez as the everyday cleanup hitter, was batting .255 with just one home run and four RBIs.

And believe it or not, the numbers only told part of the story.

To understand how bad things were truly going for Cano, consider this:

Lately, he has had to swallow the ribbing of Eduardo Nunez, who told him, "Stewart has more RBIs than you and he plays less games."

Cano might not have been exactly sure who "Stewart" was -- he asked, "What's that guy's name?" -- but he knew the rest of the statement was pretty much true. Of the Yankees' regulars, only Brett Gardner, who has played just nine games due to injury, had fewer RBIs than Cano.

Even Chris Stewart, a catcher here solely for his defensive abilities, had managed to knock in four runs.

So it was with some measure of satisfaction that Cano rounded the bases at Kauffman Stadium in the third inning of Sunday's series finale against the Royals, having doubled his own output of home runs and RBIs with one swing of the bat, and in the process, putting some distance between himself and the backup catcher.

As Cano returned to the dugout, he made sure to visit Nunez, his buddy and the guy who lockered next to him for the four games here in Kansas City.

"Now I'm back on top," Cano said.

On an otherwise-dreary weekend in which the Yankees lost two of four to a team with one of the worst records in baseball, and, far more damaging, also lost Mariano Rivera, the Bombers got back Robbie Cano, and that is certainly something to be encouraged about.

"It was great to see," manager Joe Girardi said. "We know what these guys are capable of doing and eventually it's going to come. It's nice that it started today."

While it was easy enough to justify Mark Teixeira's slow start as typical considering his average April, or Alex Rodriguez's as predictable considering his age and injury history, Cano's sluggish start was disturbing and even mystifying.

Over the past couple of seasons, it has been obvious that in the post-Core Four era, the Yankees' offense would revolve around Cano's bat and the team's fortunes would rise or fall along with his production.

In 2010 and 2011, the typical Cano season was a .311 batting average with 28 home runs and 114 RBIs, and those numbers were taken as a baseline from which to measure his 2012, and beyond.

But through the first 27 games of 2012, Cano simply was not measuring up.

Even worse, some of his recent at-bats were almost painfully awkward, his timing noticeably off and his typically fluid mechanics labored, almost clumsy. For the first time in his career, the player who always made the game look so easy was actually hard to watch.

As recently as Saturday night, when Cano was held to a quiet 1-for-4 by Felipe Paulino, who handcuffed the Yankees in a 5-1 victory, Cano said, "Everyone on this team can hit. We all know it's going to turn around soon."

There was no reason, however, to believe it would be this soon.

Not only did Cano bust out, but Rodriguez, who had also played in every game but had managed just six extra-base hits, four of them home runs, and a mere 11 RBIs, belted a three-run home run. Nick Swisher, who had missed a week with a hamstring strain, returned to the lineup as the DH and contributed a solo home run.

And Phil Hughes, on the bubble in a rotation that soon expects to add Andy Pettitte, turned in his best effort of the year, throwing 115 pitches over 6⅔ innings as the Yankees beat the Royals 10-4.

But it was the fact seven of the 10 runs came courtesy of the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters in the lineup, and on just two swings, that reminded you the Yankees' offense wasn't always as anemic as it appeared this weekend, or in the previous three games against Baltimore, when they managed a total of just three runs.

It reminded you there actually was a time when this lineup was feared.

"Much better today," said Rodriguez, who after Saturday night's loss had said the Yankees were tired of "tipping our caps" to the opposing pitchers.

The way they hit on Sunday will have them tipping their caps to the fans, if they can carry it over to this week's important three-game series with the divisional rival Tampa Bay Rays.

"That's what we're expected to do," Rodriguez said. "For us to do what we want to do this year, Robbie and I hitting three and four, we're going to have to do damage like that. And we're capable of it."

But the whole thing hinges on Cano returning to form in the cleanup spot, where he will force pitchers to give A-Rod, batting third, something meaty to hit, and give Teixeira, batting fifth, someone to drive in.

To this point, Cano hadn't been helping either of them, or himself.

"The last three years I've been good, I can't complain about it," Cano said. "But sometimes you're not going to be the same guy all the time. We're human and we're going to go through tough situations."

Still, the sight of the unsightly numbers on the scoreboard drove Cano "crazy," in his word.

"You go home and work hard, you expect to get at least 20 RBIs a month," he said. "Especially when you hit third or fourth or fifth. You're going to hit a lot of time with men on base. I didn't like seeing those numbers."

But with one swing of the bat, Cano caught a changeup from Royals starter Luke Hochevar and deposited it deep into the right-field seats, some 420 feet from home plate, and just like that, one home run became two, four RBIs became eight and a slim 2-1 lead became a 6-1 laugher. Swisher's home run followed two batters later, and A-Rod's shot in the eighth inning just added an exclamation point.

"I don't think these guys ever doubt themselves," Girardi said. "I think they get frustrated when they look at the board and see the numbers but I don't think they doubt themselves. I've said all along we've got great hitters on this team and eventually, they're going to hit."

Five weeks into the 2012 season, Robbie Cano has finally started to hit. The numbers may not be great yet, but they're better than they were at the start of Sunday.

Better, even, than Chris Stewart's.