Cano's become Murderers' Row of one

NEW YORK -- As he marveled over the New York Yankees' lineup five years back, building it up before his long-shot Detroit Tigers tore it down in Hickory High form, Jim Leyland delivered a line he had been working on for at least a few nights.

"Murderers' Row and then Cano," he called the heavy favorites before the 2006 ALDS.

Robinson Cano was hitting at the bottom of the order back then, even with a regular-season batting average of .342. The second baseman was a wildly talented kid, but still a 23-year-old athlete who needed to do an awful lot of growing up.

Saturday night, in Game 1A of another division series matchup between the Tigers and Yanks, Cano showed Leyland why he doesn't bat ninth anymore.

The brand new No. 3 hitter for the home team showed the Detroit manager that he's grown into a Murderers' Row of one.

You can start with the towering grand slam in the sixth inning, the game-breaker off Al Alburquerque that landed halfway to, well, Albuquerque, disabusing the Tigers of any notion that they could rally and seize this night.

The Yankee Stadium crowd chanted, "Rah-bee … Rah-bee," and Cano was so excited he jumped out of the dugout and took a curtain call in the middle of Alburquerque's windup.

Hitting coach Kevin Long said Cano has the talent to be "the face of the franchise" in the twilight days of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Alex Rodriguez, and this moment backed him up.

But the more significant two-out swing in Game 1A -- the seven innings left over from Friday night's Game 1 rainout -- was unleashed in the fifth, with the score still at 1-1. Cano showed his willingness to use the entire ballpark, his refusal to be seduced by the enticing dimensions in right, when he landed a Doug Fister fastball on the top of the wall in left.

Had Steve Bartman been sitting in the front row, Cano would've had himself a two-run homer. But the nearest fan to the ball threw back his hands, allowing it to bounce into play and forcing the slugger to settle for the RBI double. The game-changing RBI double.

"I look around me," Cano said, "and you've got Jeter, Alex, Posada. … I still look at myself as one of the youngest, the guy that has to improve and keep getting better."

Cano has gotten plenty good enough. He's taken the Yankees from A-Rod and Jeter, and he's proved to be more valuable than the potential league MVP, Curtis Granderson.

"He knows how to hit the ball out all over the ballpark," Joe Girardi said.

In between his two offensive daggers, Cano killed the Tigers softly on defense. With Austin Jackson on first and Leyland calling for the hit and run, Cano raced to his right to cover second and found himself in perfect position to gather Magglio Ordonez's grounder at the bag.

What would've been a base hit up the middle became a forum for Cano's Fred Astaire-like grace in the field. He calmly fielded the ball, touched the bag, and took a couple of effortless steps backward before firing to first. Cano might as well have been wearing a tux when he turned this double play.

He wasn't done. For good measure, Cano victimized a third Tigers pitcher, Daniel Schlereth, in the eighth, driving home Jeter and joining Hideki Matsui, Bernie Williams and Bobby Richardson as the only Yankees with six RBIs in one postseason night.

"It's big, really big," Cano said of the responsibility that comes with being the 3 hitter in the Yanks' postseason lineup. "But … I'm not going to change my game. I'm not going to put pressure on myself: 'Well, I'm in the third spot.' I'll just go out there and just do what I did in the regular season."

Cano wasn't alone out there Saturday night, making the Tigers look Central Division small. Ivan Nova dominated in his first playoff appearance, in a second-night role usually assumed by the most prominent guest in the house, Andy Pettitte. Jeter made a terrific relay throw to the plate in the fifth to get Alex Avila on a play that shouldn't even have been close, the kind of postseason relay Jeter always makes.

The Tigers looked as bad as the Minnesota Twins usually do in these first-round matchups. Jhonny Peralta failed to attempt what should've been an inning-ending double play in the sixth, and that only allowed the Yanks to score half a dozen runs.

Cano accounted for four of them. With the bases loaded, Leyland decided to go to his right-hander, Alburquerque, who hadn't surrendered a homer all year and who had been death on lefties. The reliever had faced Cano once and struck him out.

"To me that was a no-brainer," Leyland said.

As Alburquerque warmed up, Cano huddled with Long near the dugout railing, going over their scouting report. The second baseman took the first pitch for a strike and then waited for Alburquerque to tempt him one more time.

"He threw a slider," Leyland said of his reliever, "and it didn't do anything."

Other than give a beaming Cano a moment he'll never forget.

"When he gets a hit," Jeter said, "he smiles like he's never gotten a hit before in his life. He enjoys himself."

It's hard to believe Brian Cashman once offered Cano in trade proposals for Carlos Beltran, Randy Johnson and Rodriguez. It's hard to believe Cashman and Girardi had to put him in a room three years back and spend 20 minutes reviewing a tape of Cano failing to hustle after a stray ball.

It's hard to believe there was a time in the not-too-distant past when most baseball executives would've picked Dustin Pedroia over Cano in an open draft of middle infielders.

"It's a kid," Girardi said of his second baseman, "that's grown and blossomed into quite a player."

The best player in New York. Maybe the best player in baseball.

Definitely a Murderers' Row all his own.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter". Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.