Cano’s blow provides Mo needed cushion

If the Yankees sent any kind of message to the Angels in taking two of three games at Yankee Stadium this week, it was this: if you guys want to get to postseason play, you better win your division.

The Yankees increased their lead over the Los Angeles Anaheims to eight games in the wild-card race. The Angels are much closer to first place in the American League West where they trail the Rangers by two games. The Yanks are one game behind the Red Sox in the AL East.

The Angels made the mistake of giving the Yankees an extra out in the seventh inning because of an error by second baseman Maicer Izturis, who bobbled a ground ball by Mark Teixeira that should have been the third out. Instead, it loaded the bases for the Yankees, who gleefully watched Robinson Cano clear them with a grand slam against Scott Downs.

Cano was on fire in the series. Thursday was his second straight three-hit game. Wednesday night, he was a single shy of hitting for the cycle. Cano had 7-for-12 (.583) with a double, a triple, two home runs and six RBI in the series. The All-Star second baseman is back over .300 at .303 with 20 home runs and 81 RBI. He also made one of his patented charging plays with a crossover throw to nail Torii Hunter at first base to end the Angels fifth.

Cano’s salami made a winner of Rafael Soriano, who has been nearly perfect since coming off the disabled list. He finally gave up a hit Thursday in his sixth inning since returning from a right elbow injury. The other two Yankees’ runs were courtesy of Curtis Granderson, who homered for the fourth time in three games and raised his season total to 32 to tie Teixeira for the club lead.

The grand slam by Cano made the score 6-2, but that was not the final. Another “blip,” as Yankees manager Joe Girardi has been calling the recent relief work of the struggling Mariano Rivera, turned it into a one-run game. Russell Branyan came off the bench with two on in the ninth and clubbed a fat cutter from Mo deep into the right field stands for a home run, his eight in 47 career at-bats at the Stadium, which got the Angels to 6-5. Rivera settled down after that and got the final two outs for his 30th save. This is the 14th consecutive season that Mo has saved at least 30 games, tying the major-league mark of Trevor Hoffman, the only closer with more career saves. Rivera now trails Hoffman, who retired this year, by 11.

Normally, you might say it would be a lock for Rivera to overtake Hoffman as the all-time saves leader but not the way he has pitched this week. He suffered a blown save Sunday night at Boston and gave up a game-winning home run to former teammate Bobby Abreu Tuesday night. Over his past three appearances, Rivera has allowed four runs, all earned, and four hits, including two home runs, with no strikeouts while his ERA has swelled from 1.70 to 2.40.

“I’ll get concerned if it happens for a month,” Girardi said after the game.

Rivera has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt that he can right himself, but at 41 he may finally be showing signs of age. Even the other night, Girardi said that when he caught Rivera in the 1990s his cut fastball ranged from 94 to 98 mph and that now it is more like 90 to 93. Four to five miles is a big difference. One thing I have noticed is that hitters seem to be more aggressive against Rivera, who is always around the plate. For years, he took advantage of the fact that opposing hitters whose teams were trailing in the ninth would usually take a strike. Mo has spent his whole career getting ahead 0-1 on opposing hitters. Now, more and more hitters are taking the approach Branyan did Thursday.

Nevertheless, it was a positive game for the Yankees, who got another good start from the remarkable comeback man Bartolo Colon, who pitched six innings and gave up two runs and five hits with two walks and five strikeouts. Derek Jeter reached base four times with three singles and a walk. Since coming off the DL July 4, the Captain is batting .312 with eight doubles, one triple, two home runs and 21 RBI in 31 games and 125 at-bats.

It was a good day for the Yankees, and they have had a lot of them. They are playing .800 ball in the daytime with a 32-8 record.

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