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Cano's finally pushing himself toward potential

Robinson Cano has this vision of a beautiful place called the rest of his career, where he has the patience to swing only at strikes, the bat-speed to drive in 120-plus runs and is so trusted by his manager, is given the responsibility of protecting Alex Rodriguez in the lineup.

This small slice of heaven no longer exists just in Cano's imagination. It's here: He's batting in the No. 5 spot in the Yankees' lineup, but more importantly, is eliminating the flaw that made him such an easy out with runners in scoring position in 2009.

Cano used to routinely swing for the planets -- no plan, no strategy, no concept of situational hitting. More than 30 percent of the pitches that tempted Cano last season were out of the strike zone.

He had the talent to finish with a .320 average, but a .207 mark with runners in scoring position left the Yankees dumbfounded. Ever since Cano broke into the big leagues in 2005, club officials had been quietly predicting he'd someday win a batting title. Yet, Cano drove in just 21.2 percent of the runners from scoring position, the fourth lowest in the majors last year among those with 150-plus chances.

One look at Cano today, however, and it's obvious something has changed. He walked out of Fenway Park Wednesday night with a cool .417 average, but tellingly, every pitch Cano swung at in the Yankees' first two games against the Red Sox was in the strike zone.

So the question is: What (or who) has gotten into Cano's head?

Surprisingly it appears to be A-Rod himself, who pulled the second baseman aside one day in late March and spoke candidly, if not brusquely, to his teammate.

"I told Robby he's no kid anymore, he's closer to 30 than 20," Rodriguez said of the 27-year-old second baseman. "At this point in his career, with his talent, he should have one MVP (award), maybe two.

"The thing is, on any other team he would THE guy, but here, he's surrounded by a lot of talent. I said, 'Don't let that hold you back. It's time to go get it.' We've all said the same thing to him. I think Robby gets that. I think Robbie's finally maturing."

Rodriguez backed up his words with a unique batting practice session at a remote field at the Yankees' spring training complex. The scene, as depicted by the New York Post , had A-Rod barking out situations that had historically handcuffed Cano.

Second and third with one out. Bases loaded, game on the line. A-Rod not only helped Cano swing with more authority, but changed his internal monologue, as well.

"Have a plan with conviction," Rodriguez said, recounting the session. "Look to do damage. Take your 'A' swing and drive the ball."

That's the message the Yankees have repeated a million times over since 2006, when Cano batted a career-best .342. That was the year he also batted .306 with runners in scoring position -- almost 100 points higher than in '09.

No wonder the Yankees were uncomfortable. Cano's .136 average during last year's World Series was the most damning stat of all. Here was a veritable hitting machine, somehow reduced to a near-automatic out at the season's most critical moment.

It made no sense, unless you believe, as some talent evaluators suggest, that Cano's success came too quickly, too easily. It took Cano the better part of six years to learn a major league work ethic.

"The guy has so much talent, it didn't get through to him that it's hard work that makes a great career, not just skill," said the scout. "You could see he was just coasting."

Other members of the Yankee organization wonder, too, if Cano was somehow being held back by his close friendship with Melky Cabrera. Cano, who is single, led a robust off-the-field social life. While he never found himself in trouble, being separated from Cabrera -- who was traded to the Braves for Javier Vazquez over the winter -- apparently changed his outlook this spring.

Cano was one of the first players in camp on a daily basis, finally admitting, "I'm older and smarter" now. Indeed, he knows he has big shoes to fill, being asked to replace the production of Hideki Matsui, last year's World Series MVP who batted .303 with runners in scoring position last year.

It's a responsibility Cano takes seriously.

"I love it, especially hitting behind two guys who are on base a lot like (Mark) Teixeira and A-Rod," Cano said. "I feel blessed to be on a team like this, hitting in this lineup."

With the stars properly aligned, Cano could conceivably hit .340 again, drive in those 120-plus runs the Yankees keep projecting. They think they're on course to score 900-1,000 runs this season, which they consider a critical response the Red Sox' upgraded rotation and defense.

Cano will literally be in the middle of that calculus, although the Yankees are waiting to see if his newly discovered patience will survive the first slump. "That's always the test," said manager Joe Girardi. If Cano reverts to his swing-at-everything strategy, Jorge Posada stands ready to replace him in the No. 5 spot.

Somehow, though, Girardi doesn't think it'll come to that.

"I always though Robby wanted to be a great player," is what the manager said, watching as Cano inches closer to that reality every day.