As Robinson Cano stood at his locker late Friday afternoon, he said returning to Yankee Stadium — where he flourished as a power-hitting second baseman — was no longer a big deal. He had been gone for more than a year, so playing here is no different from playing anywhere.
“Now, it’s like any other team,” Cano said of the Yankees.
Then Cano went to the field for batting practice. He sneaked up behind a stadium security guard, whom he embraced. He chatted with his former teammates. He signed autographs and mugged for fans who called out to him.
The Seattle Mariners (41-49), desperate to lurch into the American League playoff race, hope that a return to the nest allows Cano to rediscover the player to whom they handed a 10-year, $240 million contract before last season.
The second half of the season did not begin with a reawakening from Cano, who was hitless in four at-bats as the Yankees beat the Mariners, 4-3, after Alex Rodriguez’s tiebreaking, seventh-inning home run.
The Mariners’ offense was driven by Kyle Seager, the third baseman who bats in front of Cano.
He homered twice, accounting for all of Seattle’s runs. Cano is batting .249, more than 50 points below his career average, with six home runs and 30 R.B.I.
“A lot’s been made of Robbie’s struggles, and rightfully so, but one of the things I told Robbie is I need Robbie to just be Robbie,” Seattle Manager Lloyd McClendon said. “My level of confidence has everything to do with his track record. One of the things that I stressed is if we play to the back of our bubble gum cards, we’re going to be pretty good.”
Cano’s return coincided neatly with the audition of the Yankees rookie Rob Refsnyder, a converted outfielder, as his replacement. Refsnyder, who hit a home run last weekend in his second major league game, is the ninth player the Yankees have used at second base since Cano left.
There were few signs Friday that he would be the second coming. Refsnyder was hitless in three at-bats before Garrett Jones was brought in to pinch-hit for him. Refsnyder’s deliberateness in getting rid of a ground ball robbed the Yankees of whatever slim opportunity they had to complete a double play preceding Seager’s two-run homer in the fifth, and Refsnyder looked uncertain on two other plays.
Before the game, Manager Joe Girardi said of Refsnyder’s promotion: “It is not a two-week trial.”
If that is the case, the Yankees may have to juggle their roster. After activating Brendan Ryan, they had, along with Stephen Drew, two light-hitting, slick-fielding middle infielders on the bench. Outfielder Carlos Beltran is expected to return Saturday from his rehab assignment in Tampa, Fla., meaning someone has to go, though it could also be a reliever for the time being.
The search for a second baseman began after 2013, when the Yankees did not match Seattle’s offer for Cano.
It marked a rare departure from the Yankees, who have traditionally blinked and given handsome contract extensions — probably beyond what the market would bear — to retain their own top players. They did so when Rodriguez and C. C. Sabathia opted out of their contracts, and they let Bernie Williams linger as a free agent before re-signing him.
The Red Sox, by contrast, have rarely adhered to such sentimentality. They let Pedro Martinez walk just after he helped end their 86-year World Series title drought in 2004. They also allowed outfielders Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury, who each helped them win titles, to depart and join the Yankees, and last year Boston dealt pitcher Jon Lester to the Oakland Athletics rather than pay him what the market would bear.
The Yankees this season banked on Drew as a one-year, $5 million stopgap until Refsnyder proved he could handle the defensive rigors of the position. Drew has hit 12 home runs, but is batting just .182.
When the Mariners invested in Cano, they hoped that along with his bat, his presence would elevate the rest of the team — and it mostly did last season. Though his home run total dipped to 14, equaling his career-low, Cano still hit .314 and finished fifth in the league’s Most Valuable Player voting as Seattle just missed out on a playoff berth.
The Mariners then signed the free agent Nelson Cruz, last year’s American League home-run leader, reasoning that he would afford plenty of protection for Cano and further bolster their offense. Cruz has delivered, batting .304 with 21 home runs and 53 R.B.I., but Cano — and the Mariners — has floundered.
McClendon considered his team lucky to be within seven games of a playoff berth coming out of the All-Star break. Cano recently said that the death of his grandfather and a stomach virus have had some effect on him.
As for that contract and its possible burden?
“I don’t think the contract has anything to do with it,” McClendon said. “I think he feels a sense of responsibility to play the best that he can play for his teammates. This guy’s built different than a lot of guys.”
Cano said he was not the type of player to get down on himself. He did not look at the season as half gone; rather, as one with half of it left.
“It’s not how you start,” he said. “I’m going to go through these things. I’m the kind of guy that’s always positive. We played better lately. It’s not just about myself, it’s about the whole team. Hopefully we can start playing better.”