OAKLAND, Calif. – And so we’ve come full circle since that dark, jarring day in mid-May when Robinson Cano was suspended, and the Mariners’ promising season seemed doomed.
He left under a cloud and has been living in baseball limbo for the past 80 days, while the Mariners soared without him into firm control of a playoff spot, and then tumbled right back out of it.
Now Cano has returned, not exactly a savior, but most definitely a jolt of energy for a team fighting for its postseason life. Whatever feelings of shock, disappointment and even discontent that might have existed within the ballclub back when Cano tested positive for a diuretic commonly used as a masking agent for performance-enhancing drugs, they have been assuaged.
“I think everybody’s real excited,” said Kyle Seager. “Any time you can add a person of his caliber, that’s a huge boost to our team.”
As the Mariners opened a crucial three-game series with the Athletics on Monday with a 7-6 loss, manager Scott Servais was preaching restraint when it came to Cano. He felt the Mariners finally thrived in Houston, en route to a season-saving four-game sweep, by throttling back. Less pressing, less focus on trying to catch the A’s, more on playing one clean, crisp game at a time.
Similarly, he wants Cano to come in, not as the one who is going to carry the Mariners to the finish line, but as another piece in the puzzle. Servais realizes that is easy to say, harder to do. The temptation for Cano will be to try to come in blazing, make up for the lost time, redeem himself immediately for the nearly three months he missed.
“He’s human,” Servais said. “That’s what we forget. These guys, they do have emotions, and they do want to get it all back immediately.
“He’s a great player. He made a mistake. He wants to put it behind him as quick as he can. And in all players’ minds, if you go out and produce on the field, then everyone will relax and put it behind them. But it’s a day at a time. Don’t try to do too much.”
It’s hard not to view Cano’s return as a godsend for the Mariners, whose offense has mostly staggered since an initial surge in the aftermath of his suspension. They had a .575 winning percentage (23-17) when he was suspended, and after Monday’s comeback fell short, a .575 winning percentage (46-34) while he was out. But that hardly means he’s a fungible commodity.
Servais said he has tried to be frank and honest with those players whose playing time might be affected by Cano’s return. When I asked Seager if he would give some pointers to Cano about the fine points of playing third, he replied, “Oh, man. I don’t know. He’ll probably teach me how to play better than me. He’ll probably be giving me pointers before long.”
More seriously, Seager said of potentially losing playing time to Cano, “If it’s helping our team, I think everyone is welcoming that.”
Denard Span was one of the repercussions of the Cano suspension. When Dee Gordon was moved out of necessity from center field to second base, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto acquired Span from Tampa Bay to bolster the outfield. Now Span is awaiting his first time as an on-field teammate of the player he has long admired across the diamond.
“Before the last series, we were going through a little funk, obviously,” Span said. “I think it’s just going to be good to have your No. 3-hole hitter coming back and inserting him into the lineup. It’s almost like having a midseason July trade. I think everybody’s excited about just having his presence in the locker room and also in the lineup and on the field.”
Cano was almost a ghostlike figure during the early days of his suspension, often arriving at the ballpark, working out and leaving before the media and fans showed up. Mariners players, however, have had intermittent opportunities to interact with him.
“I think he’s trying to stay in the zone,” Span said. “The times I’ve seen him, obviously we were rolling, we were playing good baseball, so I think he tried to make it more about the team and not himself. Him dealing with the suspension, I’d imagine, had to take a toll on him and be difficult. But I think he’s handled it well. He’s kind of, in a sense, stayed out of the way.”
Those days are now over. Cano is returning, conspicuously but with an air of mystery as to his impact. Will he provide an instant lift? Will he mess up the chemistry that was revitalized in the Astros sweep? Will he show the rust of sitting out a half a season? Will Servais be able to reintegrate him seamlessly?
The answers could well determine how successfully Seattle navigates the stretch drive, and whether its interminable playoff drought ends.
“There’s no great blueprint that says, yeah, this is what’s going to happen,” Servais said.
The manager was speaking specifically about Cano’s playing time. But he might as well have been speaking of the Mariners’ world with Cano back in it.
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