How Robinson Cano helped the Mariners become playoff contenders

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Robinson Cano was sitting at a small round table in the clubhouse here Wednesday afternoon. With nothing else to do with his hands, he shuffled a deck of cards. Then he shuffled them again. And again. By appearances, he did not intend to play cards. There was no one around, really, to play cards with. So he shuffled the cards and stared at the deck, then at the clock, then back at the deck, filling the time.

With 11 games remaining in his first season with the Seattle Mariners, a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 2009 or a playoff appearance since 2001, Cano has been a productive player and a willing leader; by accounts, a good company man in every way. As a result, the Mariners will have a winning season. They just might return to the postseason. Neither happens without a keenly talented pitching staff. But neither does it happen without Cano.

Robinson Cano has the Mariners in contention for a wild-card playoff berth. (USA Today)
Robinson Cano has the Mariners in contention for a wild-card playoff berth. (USA Today)

This was not the way it was going to go at all. The story was, Cano had taken his money and in return he would disappear into the Pacific Northwest, where his game would be swallowed by the ballpark, and his relevancy would be overrun in the deep AL West. He had traded his prime years for a personal life he couldn’t possibly enjoy, and a professional existence that couldn’t possibly compare to the one he left behind. On top of that, the Mariners were once again building on impulse, as they had in the past. It was a strategy that had led to, among other things, four consecutive losing seasons and 12 consecutive regretful Octobers. It couldn’t work. It wouldn’t work.

Cano, the story went, might as well spend the rest of his career shuffling cards. There’d never be a real game to play. He’d always be looking at the clock, filling time, one man away from a good game.

Instead, well, here they are – the middle of September, 82 wins, a game back in the wild-card race, with so much pitching it’s stacked up over SeaTac. Cano’s new team is in it, legit, a contender amid the parity. His old team, not so much.

Playing primarily in the ballpark where offensive players go to get a good cry, Cano is batting .319, almost 10 points higher than his career average. He is third in the American League in on-base percentage, aided by the 19 intentional walks he’s been issued in the middle of a somewhat unthreatening batting order. He’s the guy he was with the New York Yankees, only with 14 home runs instead of twice that.

And – what do you know? – the Yankees needed him more than he needed them.

“Everything has been good,” he said Wednesday afternoon.

He said he keeps one sleepy eye on the Yankees, because of course he does, those are his friends back there. He said he wishes Derek Jeter could go out with one more October, because he remembers how much Jeter loved the playoffs. He shrugged. Those aren’t his problems anymore. The Mariners are on a road trip that sends them through four games in Anaheim, three in Houston and four in Toronto before they are to return to Seattle for three more against the Angels. The season is so close to over. By any definition it has been good to Cano. And yet there is still so much left out there – the games and the flights (especially the flights) and, new to Seattle again, the chase. A real chase.

And a year into that 10-year, $240 million contract – yes, there’s plenty of time left for judging, for a true outcome – Cano has been very good to the Mariners, and they to him.

“I think more important than anything, he’s a good teammate,” first-year manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He really cares about what’s happening within the organization. Great players have the ability to make other players better. Robby does it.”

Like, for whom?

The Mariners credit Cano for making his teammates better. (USA Today)
The Mariners credit Cano for making his teammates better. (USA Today)

Like, for Kyle Seager, McClendon said.

“I’ve asked him a lot of mechanical questions about hitting and he’s been very open to me,” Seager said.

Specifically, Seager wanted to know how Cano, as a fellow left-handed hitter, so deftly hit the ball the other way. And not fly balls, either, but line drives. Seager needed to learn how to beat the shift.

“It opens up the game,” Seager said.

So Cano talks him through at-bats, and then they talk about them afterward, and then Seager hits .274 with 23 home runs and a .343 on-base percentage, his best offensive season.

The secret to going the other way? What has he told Seager? Cano smiled.

“It’s natural,” he said. “You can’t teach that.”

Nobody tell Kyle.

“I try to share all those things that I know,” Cano said, “that I learned in my career. When you’re in a place like New York, all those older guys around, they had all the time in the big leagues. You know you have the ability to be a leader. But you don’t know if you can be one until you have to be.”

However that plays in Seattle – a hit here or there, a win once in a while, or just a greater perspective on the failures – it’s worked. You know, that and what is easily the best pitching staff in baseball. The Mariners still need another bat or two. They’re still not quite good enough, not yet. There are still another 11 days to decide.

But, for the first time in a while, the Mariners have to like who they are, and who has gotten them there, and what’s next. They’re in the game.

“Oh yeah, a hundred percent,” Cano said. “I’m really enjoying it.”

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