SEATTLE — Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano reaped further recognition Monday for his hot start — and his weekend shelling of the Houston Astros — when he was picked as the American League’s player of the week.
Is it possible the person most responsible for Cano’s torrid production is former coach Andy Van Slyke? Cano broke into a wide grin, threw back his head and laughed loudly.
"That’s a good one," Cano said as he nodded his head. "You got me."
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Recall that it was Van Slyke who, having been fired in an organizational shakeup, blistered Cano last November in a radio interview as "just the most awful player I have ever seen."
Van Slyke blamed Cano’s performance early last season for subsequent firings of general manager Jack Zduriencik, manager Lloyd McClendon and the nearly all of the coaching staff.
The comments stunned Cano and provided no small amount of motivation. Cano is also healthy, of course, after batting a stomach ailment early last season and playing the final two months with a sports hernia that required off-season surgery.
The difference, by any measure, is stunning.
Cano entered Monday’s series opener against Tampa Bay as the majors’ co-leader with 12 home runs and undisputed leader with 33 RBIs. His average, which had lagged, was up to .305 after a 16-for-31 week that led to his award.
"Robinson Cano was Superman this series," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said after Sunday’s conclusion to the four-game set in Houston. "He found a way to remind us that you can’t make any pitches to him when he’s hot."
Cano was also pretty good earlier in the week in three games at Oakland, where he went 7-for-13 in helping the Mariners to a three-game sweep. But he simply torched the Astros: 9-for-18 with three homers and seven RBIs.
"I’ve been looking for my pitch," he said. "I’m not trying to do too much. I’m just trying to work the middle of the field."
Cano is 14-for-30 overall this season in seven games against the Astros with seven home runs and 17 RBIs. His personal best for RBIs against one club in a single season is 18 against Boston in 2006 while playing for the Yankees.
"He’s getting paid a lot of money for a reason," said Houston ace Dallas Keuchel, who surrendered three hits Saturday to Cano in four at-bats. "He seems like he’s healthy and seeing the ball well right now."
Cano won the player-of-the-week award on six previous occasions, but those citations all occurred while he played for New York: once in 2005, twice in 2007, twice in 2010 and once in 2012.
Three Mariners won the award last year: Nelson Cruz (April 20) , Brad Miller (May 18) and Hisashi Iwakuma (Aug. 17).
Contrast Cano’s current production with a year ago when, through May 8, he was batting .263 with one homer and eight RBIs. His average eventually dipped to .238 as late as June 30 before he surged over the final three months.
"As a player, you go home, you prepare yourself for a good season," he said. "The best thing is to start (well) early. An example is myself last year. I had a tough first half. Thank God, I was able to bounce back in the second half.
"But you want to start (well) from the first game of the year… It’s good to win an award, but the best thing is to help the team win. That’s all that matters here. Win games."
The Mariners, at 18-13, entered the week atop the American League West Division. A year ago through May 8, they were 12-17 and already 6 1/2 games out of first place.
"For me," Cano said, "it doesn’t mean anything to have a great season if you know you’re going to go home in September. You’ve also got to give credit that we have a great coaching staff."
UPDATES ON WALKER, BENOIT
Both threw light bullpen workouts prior to Monday’s series opener against Tampa Bay at Safeco Field.
Walker left last Friday’s game after two innings because of neck spasms, which he believed resulted from sleeping poorly as the club’s hotel in Houston. He reported steady improvement over each of the last three days.
"Everything I’ve been led to believe," manager Scott Servais said, "is he’ll be fine for his next start."
Benoit hasn’t pitched since April 21 because of inflammation in his shoulder, but he said he feels healthy and vowed to be ready by the time the Mariners open a three-game series May 17 in Baltimore.
Plans call for Benoit to get a day-after examination Tuesday, which should determine the next stage of his recovery. Servais hedged when asked whether Benoit would require a minor-league rehab assignment.
"Everybody is different," Servais said. "When you take a guy who has been around as Jack, and who knows his body like he does…not everybody has to go out.
"I think the longer you’re away, the longer you’re inactive, then the possibility increases that you do need to get out and pitch in a real game. We’ll see. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.
"Let’s see how he comes out of (Monday’s) bullpen, and we’ll go from there."
Hitting coach Edgar Martinez retired after the 2004 season, when he compiled a .342 on-base percentage that marked the lowest mark of his career for a full season. (He had a .314 OBP over 65 games in 1989.)
Some perspective: Only three Mariners entered Monday’s game with a higher OBP than Martinez’s career low: Nelson Cruz (.371), Seth Smith (.360) and Cano (.355).
Small wonder that Cano declares: "That’s a guy you can go and ask questions to. He’s been so big for us."
Martinez finished his 18-year career with a .418 OBP, which is the 21st highest mark in history. He led the American League on three occasions. (Ted Williams is the all-time leader at .482, followed by Babe Ruth at .474.
Double-A Jackson right-hander Dylan Unsworth was picked as the Southern League pitcher of the week for May 2-8 after working seven scoreless innings against Jacksonville (Marlins) in his only start.
Unsworth, 23, carried a no-hitter into the seventh before giving up two hits. He is 2-0 with a 0.92 ERA in 29 1/3 innings over five starts. The Mariners signed Unsworth, a South African, as a 16-year-old in 2009.
This is the second such award in Unsworth’s seven-year pro career. He was picked as the California League pitcher of the week in 2014 while pitching for High Desert.
It was 13 years ago Tuesday — May 10, 2003 — that Edgar Martinez hit a home run on a 3-0 count against Bartolo Colon in the first inning of a 4-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox at Safeco Field.
Martinez’s two-run blast was the first homer by a Mariner on a 3-0 count in nearly five years — since Glenallen Hill did it on June 9, 1998 against Shawn Estes in the second inning of a 7-6 loss at San Francisco.
The Mariners entered Monday having won their last six one-run decisions but just 7-5 overall. They started the season by winning just one of their first six one-run games…the Mariners, prior to Monday, led all American League clubs with 58 runs scored with two outs…Robinson Cano (33) and Kyle Seager (19) had combined for 52 RBIs through Sunday. The most by any other set of AL teammates was 46 by Baltimore’s Mark Trumbo (24) and Manny Machado (22).
The Mariners and Rays continue their three-game series at 7:10 p.m. Tuesday at Safeco Field when left-hander Wade Miley (2-2 with a 4.74 ERA) faces Tampa Bay lefty Drew Smyly (1-3, 2.72).
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners