Cano's slam makes Hughes' win easy
Yankees slugger up to task in first start as cleanup hitter
NEW YORK -- Before Friday night's game against the Indians, Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano looked at the lineup card and was taken aback for a second with surprise.
"You sure?" he asked manager Joe Girardi.
"Yeah, I'm sure," Girardi responded.
Consider the manager's certainty well-placed. For the first time in his career, the number to the left of Cano's name on the lineup card matched the number to its right -- he was batting cleanup. And in the seventh inning, Cano stepped up to a cleanup hitter's dream -- the bases loaded.
On the first pitch Cano saw from left-handed reliever Tony Sipp, who had not allowed a run in almost three weeks, Cano turned on a slider and deposited it into the second deck in right field for his third career grand slam. It was the final salvo in an 8-2 Yankees win.
"It's exciting not for hitting a grand slam but because you score four runs and you know you're going to win the game," Cano said after his first four-run four-bagger since September of last season. "It's good to feel what it's like to be the cleanup hitter."
Cano was in that spot because Alex Rodriguez received a rare night off. It's doubtful that one big night at the plate would supplant Rodriguez's half-decade-long hold on the prime spot in the order, but Cano certainly tried his hardest. He collected three hits, drove in four runs and scored three runs to spearhead the Yankees' return home to the Bronx.
"It shows the maturity again and that he doesn't think too much about where he's hitting," Girardi said. "He just tries to have good at-bats and not put too much pressure on himself."
In the course of coming home, the Yankees found what they had forgotten on their road trip -- their offense. They had scored a meager 15 runs during their six-game trek to Queens and Minnesota. On Friday, Cano's blast was only the capper on a night in which Nick Swisher delivered a two-run homer off Indians starter Fausto Carmona and eight of the Yankees' nine starters recorded at least one hit.
"The good thing for us is we put some runs on the board early and tacked some more on as the game went on," said Swisher, whose two-run shot off the top portion of the foul pole in right field opened the scoring in the second. "We've been scratching and clawing for runs lately, and tonight was pretty good for the offense."
Eight runs were more than enough for Phil Hughes to pick up his first win in three starts and sixth of the season. Hughes limited the Indians to a pair of runs on five hits in seven strong innings. In his previous two starts, he had been plagued by long at-bats and an inability to finish off hitters. On Friday, Hughes allowed only one two-strike hit -- compared to nine over his prior two starts -- and punched out eight Indians hitters.
The difference for Hughes was a willingness to use his offspeed pitches with two strikes, the biggest of which was the 3-2 curveball he spun to strike out Luis Valbuena with two runners on, two outs and a 2-1 lead in the fourth.
"For the most part, I was able to throw some good [curveballs], and that was a big one," Hughes said. "I had done it a lot, actually, last year as a reliever, and it seemed like any time I got in a big spot, I threw a lot of 3-2 curveballs.
"I really hadn't done it too much this year, and when Chad [Moeller] put it down -- it was the first sign he gave -- I thought, 'That's a good idea.' A lot of times when you roll it in there 3-2, the hitter thinks it's high and he just takes it. And that's what you hope for."
Hughes found an early rhythm with Moeller, who was making his first start behind the plate in the big leagues this season. Hughes struck out the first five Indians to face him, mixing in that curveball with his more characteristic fastball and cutter. In all, four of Hughes' eight punchouts came on the hook.
That helped Hughes limit the number of foul balls against him just one start after the Mets fouled off 41 Hughes deliveries -- the most a pitcher had allowed in nearly five seasons. That number was only 26 on Friday, and consequently, Hughes finished seven innings having thrown 109 pitches.
"He did a better job with his pitch count tonight, too -- not getting into long counts where they foul off pitch after pitch after pitch," Girardi said. "He was able to put people away."
Hughes was also the beneficiary of some superb defense behind him, most notably by Mark Teixeira at first base. The pitcher induced six ground balls to Teixeira, and the first baseman showcased his considerable array of defensive talents. He ranged far to his right and left, making plays both unassisted and with Hughes racing over for the putout.
"It seems like there were 20 balls over there to him -- tough backhands, plays down the line," Hughes said. "He said there were tough hops, too. I got a little workout having to cover first base so many times, but I'll take that any day of the week."
And the Yankees will take games like Friday's any day of the week as well. Things looked a lot surer again in a win that featured a star turn from Cano, the excellence of Hughes and even a double for Curtis Granderson in his first game back in almost four weeks.
Granderson, who missed time with a left groin strain, talked about getting his swing back on Friday, and the same could be said for the Yankees, whose third victory in four games provided a smooth opening note for a seven-game homestand and a 16-game stretch that includes tilts with three last-place teams.
Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.