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04/02/08 12:12 AM ET

Melky stands out on night of stars

Outfielder speaks volumes with bat, glove in opening win

NEW YORK -- Melky Cabrera was the starting center fielder in the final Opening Day at Yankee Stadium, the last in a long line that includes Earle Combs, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Bobby Murcer, Roberto Kelly, Bernie Williams and Johnny Damon.

A year ago, the 23-year-old sat on the bench for the first game. By season's end, he had displaced Damon in center field only to sweat through an offseason in which Cabrera's name was bandied about in trade talks, most notably as part of the Yankees' package to try and lure Johan Santana, who eventually was dealt by the Twins to the crosstown Mets.

"I'm glad we didn't trade Melky," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "We wouldn't have won if he was not here."

Cabrera may not have singlehandedly won Tuesday night's game against the Blue Jays, a 3-2 victory, but his contributions were huge, both at bat and in the field. On successive plays in the fourth inning, Cabrera made catches that robbed Blue Jays batters of extra-base hits. In the sixth, he won a nine-pitch duel with Roy Halladay that tied the score at 2 with a solo home run on a full-count pitch.

"I felt ready to get started and was grateful to be out there the first game," Cabrera said. "I have to go out and play hard every single day."

With the score 1-1 in the fourth, Cabrera did his magic act behind Chien-Ming Wang and saved the starter from giving up at least one run.

Cabrera raced to right-center to track a drive by Lyle Overbay, and reached over his head to catch the ball on the warning track while slamming into the fence. The next hitter, Aaron Hill, sent Cabrera racing in the other direction with a shot toward the gap in left-center. On his horse Cabrera went again, and he made a mid-air grab before flopping on his belly.

"The second catch was tougher because the ball was getting up," Cabrera said.

Cabrera built a reputation last year for his defensive ability, showing off considerable range and a strong, accurate arm. His offense may not have measured up against many of his predecessors, but Cabrera ended up driving in 73 runs despite hitting only eight home runs.

"He brings a lot of energy every day, and he's just pleasant to be around. You see the smile on his face every day when he goes out to the field. He really loves what he's doing."
-- Joe Girardi on Melky Cabrera

The home run off Halladay was Cabrera's first in 163 at-bats, dating to Aug. 12, 2007, when he connected off the Indians' Jake Westbrook. With all the other sluggers in the Yankees' lineup, from Alex Rodriguez to Jason Giambi to Jorge Posada to Hideki Matsui, the Yankees do not need Cabrera to hit for power. He is the No. 9 hitter in the batting order, which in the American League is a spot often reserved for a second leadoff man.

"Melky is an exciting player," said Joe Girardi, a winner in his first game as Yankees manager. "He brings some dimensions in the outfield to us, and obviously he has improved with the bat. He brings a lot of energy every day, and he's just pleasant to be around. You see the smile on his face every day when he goes out to the field. He really loves what he's doing."

Cabrera's smile was beaming as he accepted, for him, a rare curtain call after the home run, an animated gesture that produced a roar from the sellout crowd of 55,112.

"Melky can hit, and he's still learning," Jeter said. "He's still young. He's going to get better. When he first came up, he swung at a lot of pitches. Now he's becoming more patient. You could see that in his at-bat against Halladay, who is one of the toughest pitchers I've ever seen."

"We don't look at him as a supplementary piece," Girardi said of Cabrera. "We look at him as very important to our club. When you play center field, there's a ton of responsibility. In a lot of lineups, Melky isn't going to hit No. 9."

The Yankees were awfully glad that Cabrera was not in some other club's lineup Tuesday night.

Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.