Robby rises to occasion against Rays

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- There have been plenty of bigger ballgames than Saturday night's matchup between the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays and plenty of bigger ballplayers than Robinson Cano.

But on this given night, the combination of a tense regular-season battle between the two top teams in baseball and a bomb of a home run by the modestly sized Yankees second baseman added up to a game that certainly felt like more than the sum of its parts.

"That was a Big Papi-type swing," Alex Rodriguez said of Cano's blast off Tampa Bay closer Rafael Soriano in the top of the ninth inning to earn the Yankees a dramatic 5-4 victory and prevent them from dropping into a first-place tie for the first time since June 19.

"It certainly felt like a playoff-type atmosphere," said Lance Berkman, the newest Yankee who in fairness hasn't seen too much of that, having spent his previous 11½ seasons with the Houston Astros.

And yet, both of them were right on the mark. Cano's home run, which by A-Rod's unscientific estimate "traveled almost 450 feet" was certainly the stuff that MVPs are made of.

And if you think you're seeing the last of the Tampa Bay Rays, well, check in again around mid-October when the ALCS rolls around.

You can rhapsodize all you like about the intensity and excitement of the rivalry between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, but watching these past two games and, even more shocking, listening to the passion roaring out of the stands at the generally moribund Tropicana Field, that musty old New York-Boston thing seems as played out as a sepia-toned film of a World Series between the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers.

Ring out the old, ring in the new. The "now" rivalry is the Yankees and Rays, and while it may not have the history of Yankees-Red Sox, it has a lot of things those lumbering marathons have not had in recent years. Like crispness and pace, good pitching and timely hitting, and teams that are really going at it, not just going through the motions because they've done it so long they don't know any other way.

Until proven otherwise, the Yankees are still the best team in the AL East. They have the record and the rings to prove it. But the Rays, young and hungry and armed to the teeth with young pitchers, have certainly leap-frogged the Red Sox as their chief antagonists.

And the stars of this rivalry are not the same-old, same-old, the Jeters and Ortizes and A-Rods and Variteks.

Instead, the names are John Jaso, who had two doubles and a triple in the leadoff spot for the Rays, and Matt Joyce, a Yankee-killer this weekend whose home run in the sixth off Javier Vazquez gave the Rays a 4-3 lead, and Nick Swisher, who homered an inning later off Matt Garza to pull the Yankees even for the second time in the game.

And most of all, there is Cano, who at 27 has suddenly developed from a potential great into an everyday great, a player so good and so dependable now that you hardly even notice what he is doing because you have come to expect it.

"I've told you guys a million times, Robinson Cano has more talent than anyone I've ever seen, anyone I've ever played with," said Mark Teixeira, whose two-run homer in the sixth off Garza gave the Yankees their first, and for a while what seemed would be their only, lead of the night. "To do what he did tonight in a big situation off a good closer on the road, is incredible. He hit that ball a mile."

Cano's home run, on a 1-0 fastball from a pitcher with a league-leading 29 saves, a 1.77 ERA and who had allowed just two home runs all season, was the kind of clutch hit teams and fans look back on as a key moment in a championship season. Cano, hitting .330, is among the AL's Top 10 in nearly every offensive category, and questions about whether he can replace Hideki Matsui as the No. 5 hitter in the Yankees lineup have gone the way of flannel uniforms.

Now, the question is no longer, "Is he good enough?" but "Just how good is he?"

On a team without A-Rod or Jeter or Teixeira, Cano would be the center of the universe. Here, in a lineup packed with All-Stars from 1-9, he is, as Berkman described himself before the game, "just another spoke in the wheel."

But Saturday night, Cano was the spoke without which the Yankees' wheels would have wobbled and might very well have come off.

Asked if he felt Cano was having an MVP-caliber season, Teixeira said, "When he carries a team the way he did tonight he sure looks like it. A few more of those and people are going to start talking about him with the best players in baseball."

But why wait? Cano is among them now, which is a big reason the Yankees are where they are, too.

GAME NOTES: Rodriguez did not hit a home run, and that is the last we will say about that. ... Not really. A-Rod walked his first time up, then popped out twice and struck out. "The way I'm swinging right now, it's gonna take a while," he said, good-naturedly. "So get comfortable." ... Berkman, who left Houston at 6 a.m. to fly to Tampa for the game, went 0-for-4 in his Yankees debut, popping out the first three times and striking out against Joaquin Benoit the last time. ... Austin Kearns, one of the Yankees' three trade deadline acquisitions, did not play. ... Joe Girardi said he expects Kerry Wood, acquired just before the 4 p.m. deadline from the Cleveland Indians, to join the team in time to be available to pitch in Sunday afternoon's finale. ... Sunday's pitching matchup: CC Sabathia (13-4, 2.15) vs. RHP James Shields (9-9, 4.79). First pitch is 1:37 p.m.

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

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