“Robbie!” the Manager cried out, twisting to face his players. “Get in there and get us a hit, kid. You’re up.”
Adrenaline surged into Robbie’s veins as if fed through intravenous tubes. He quickly snapped to his feet, grabbed one of his favorite black, wooden bats from the rack, and picked up his helmet on the way up the dugout steps. Striding slow and deliberate toward the box, he heard the P.A. announcer’s voice call out his name, both loud and low as it echoed through the cavernous rafters of Tropicana Field.
“Now pinch-hitting for Gonzalez, number twenty-four, Robinson Cano.”
God that sounds good, he thought to himself, the hair on the back of his neck already at full attention. Passing Alberto Gonzalez on the rookie’s way back to the dugout, a mutual fist pound was exchanged, and now it was all business for New York’s struggling second baseman.
He dug his first foot into the soft, manicured dirt of the left-handed hitter’s box, and tried to erase the .170 batting average from his mind, telling himself that he was indeed the player who hit close to .500 this Spring Training, and the player who hit nearly .340 in his second full season in The Bigs. Even when he stumbled out of the gate last year, he had finished with an average North of .300. Why is this happening to me again?
No no, Robbie, get that crap out of your head.
Digging his front foot in now, feeling for that familiar, comfortable distance with his cleat, he tried again not to think about the parade of ground balls and pop-ups coming off his bat in celebratory style, and tried to visualize centering a pitch on the barrel for the first time in fourteen games. I’m better than this, he repeated in his mind, over and over, as the opposing pitcher went into the windup.
Fastball, down and away. Okay, I’ve got his speed now. This guy’s got nothing.
Fastball, swing Robbie! Damn, that was close. I hate foul balls, c’mon.
What’s he gonna do now, what’s he gonna do? Probably something off-speed. Yeah, sit off-speed, Robbie, keep your weight back. Keep your hands back, kid, here it comes.
In baseball, there are homeruns that have a chance off the bat, the ones where everyone holds their collective breath and watches the movements of the closest outfielder to determine if the ball is gone. Then there are homeruns like the one Robinson Cano hit last night for the Yankees, the game knotted at 7-7 in the top of the eighth inning, where everyone watching – players, coaches, fans and commentators alike – know it’s gone as soon as we hear that “CRACK!” These homeruns are the no-doubters, and they are a beautiful sight to behold, sweet and powerful perfection sailing high above the diamond.
Robbie knew it too, because he felt that feeling in his hands and in his arms that you only feel when you connect with a baseball as square as you possibly can. Two-and-a-half weeks of frustration and angst rocketed through the air of Tampa Bay’s indoor stadium, the trajectory of the ball halted only by the stands in right field. Cano flipped the bat, allowed a slight smile to warm the corners of his face, and began the most satisfying, triumphant trip around the bases his sport can offer – the homerun trot.
Finally, our All-Star second baseman appeared, right before our very eyes.
And finally, after two torturous, second-guess type moves in Boston over the previous two nights, Joe Girardi looked like a manager who knew exactly how to motivate his struggling athlete, something only the truly good managers in the game know how to do. After giving Robbie the night off, presumably to allow his mind to stop obsessing and worrying about each at-bat, or maybe it was done so that he could witness someone else succeeding and having fun at second base – only Joe knows – Girardi called on No. 24 in a situation where both the team and the player needed a big-time boost. On this night, it was the perfect call in the perfect situation, and it just might turn out to be the hit that puts Cano back on the fast-track to .300.
The offense as a whole seemed to feed off the fresh breath of warm air in Tampa, reaching season-highs in hits (14) and runs (8) as a unit. Case in point, Johnny Damon hit his first homerun of the year on just the second pitch of the ballgame. Alex Rodriguez then tied Teddy Ballgame on the all-time homeruns list (521) on the fourth pitch of his first at-bat (he would finish the night 4 for 5), and Morgan Ensberg continued to rake as a part-time first baseman when he launched a hanging slider deep to left in the top of the second inning for his first homerun as well.
Even journeyman catcher Chad Moeller, called up yesterday to fill-in for both Jorge Posada (shoulder) and Jose Molina (hamstring), played a pivotal role with his bat in the four-run fourth inning that knocked Tampa Bay starter Andy Sonnanstine out of the game. With Melky Cabrera at first base and nobody out, Sonnanstine tried to execute a pitchout. However, Joe Girardi had called a hit-and-run for the Yankees, so Moeller leaned across the dish and slapped a single through the hole at second base created by the covering Akinori Iwamura. He literally hit the ball right out of the glove of the standing catcher, John Riggins, truly a bizarre but heads-up play that set New York up for a big inning.
After Damon ripped an RBI double down the first base line, and the Captain Derek Jeter smashed an RBI single to center in his first game back in exactly a week, young rookie pitcher Ian Kennedy held the score firm at 7-2 through six solid innings of work. However, he was forced to depart the game abruptly in the seventh, taking a screaming, come-back liner off his right front hip. The usually solid pair of relievers, Billy Traber and Brian Bruney, then lost him the win just as abruptly. Both pitchers combined to allow three homers and five earned runs in the inning, which evened the once laughable score at seven, just like that.
But, before the impending panic that follows blowing a huge lead had time to take root, in walked Robbie, sent in by Girardi, each man earning a small level of redemption with one sweet, swing of the bat.
And then, as always – we are so, unbelievably spoiled – Mariano Rivera slammed the door shut with a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth, carving like a knife through Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and B.J. Upton, the legitimate and powerful heart of the Tampa Bay order. The aging, one-pitch wonder is now four-for-four in save opportunities on the early season, with a 0.00 ERA. How this guy continues to dominate game after game, year after year, with a single cutting fastball is beyond my comprehension. But he does, and he will continue to do so until he can’t anymore, and that’s what makes him Mo.
What makes Joba the man amongst boys that he has become today starts and ends with the unconditional love and support of his father. Before the first pitch of tonight’s two-game-series finale against the Rays, let’s all say a silent prayer for Harlan Chamberlain, who continues his daily battle against fate and health from a hospital bed in Nebraska. Maybe that’s why Joba is the mature and grounded individual that he is, and quite possibly, the next “warrior” for the New York Yankees – from living his life in the constant presence of true strength and true grace.