NEW YORK — It took him 99 games, but Robinson Cano finally found an acceptable way to jog to first base.
And second, third, and home.
Namely, hit home runs.
The New York Mets’ 36-year-old second baseman, often maligned for his leisurely trips on the basepaths, had no need to run hard Tuesday night at Citi Field in three of his four trips to the plate. For the first time in his 15-year career, Cano hit three home runs, each one longer than the one that preceded it, and drove in every run in his team’s 5-2 victory over the San Diego Padres.
Said Padres starter Chris Paddack: “We got beat by one guy tonight.’’
And before the game started, Cano might have been the least likely candidate to be that one guy. In the sixth year of a 10-year, $240 million contract negotiated by Brodie Van Wagenen, then his agent and now his boss, Cano has had a miserable start with the Mets.
Through the first 47 games of the season, he had as many home runs as he hit Tuesday night. After starting with a bang on Opening Day, when he homered and drove in both runs in the Mets’ 2-0 win over the Washington Nationals, Cano had steadily declined, his average dipping below the Mendoza Line by mid-April and his OPS rarely edging above .700.
Entering Tuesday night’s game, Cano was hitting .243, some 60 points below his career batting average, with six home runs, 22 RBIs and a .665 OPS.
In fact, the centerpiece of the first game in this three-game series was expected to be a rematch between rookies Paddack and Pete Alonso, between whom something of a rivalry was struck up — mostly by Paddack — when the two teams met in San Diego in May.
Apparently stung by being passed over as Rookie of the Month after an outstanding April — Paddack was 2-1 with a 1.91 ERA in his first month but lost out to Alonso, who batted .292 with nine homers and 23 RBIs — the Padres’ 23-year-old righty said, “I’m coming for him. We’ll see who the top dog is.’’
Paddack was the top dog that day, striking out Alonso twice in a 4-0 Padres victory.
But the rematch was a dud — Alonso walked twice and grounded out in three plate appearances against Paddack on Tuesday night.
Instead, the fireworks were provided by two of the oldest players on the Mets’ roster: Cano, who will turn 37 in October, and starter Jason Vargas, who is two months behind him.
Cano, who had singled in the first inning, belted Paddack’s 2-0 changeup over the right-field fence in the fourth to give the Mets a 1-0 lead. That one was measured at 399 feet. Two innings later, he sent a hanging curve into the second deck in right with a runner on to make it 3-0. That one traveled 409 feet.
Then, in the seventh, Cano jumped on a first-pitch fastball with Alonso on base, rocketing it 418 feet, again into the second deck in right.
It was by far his most impressive moment as a Met and a momentary reminder of the player he once was, but has rarely resembled this season.
Mets manager Mickey Callaway batted away suggestions that Cano’s season-long struggles were a sign that his skills were in decline.
“You don’t hit three home runs if you’re declining,’’ Callaway said.
This is nonsense, of course; a 40-year-old Babe Ruth hit three home runs in a game in 1935, his final season, and retired a week later.
“That’s something in the game that you would like to do to see how it feels. And it feels good,’’ Cano said. “Hopefully things turn around from here so you guys don’t kill me in the paper anymore.’’
Cano’s resurgence, temporary though it may be, is a sign of what the Mets and Van Wagenen thought they were getting when they took over the remainder of his contract in December.
“We were seeing signs of it early, when he was hitting the ball hard but hitting it right at people,’’ Callaway said. “Then he went through that period where the ground balls started finding holes, and now he’s driving the ball. You could see the power and the stroke coming.’’
Vargas, on the other hand, has been among the most reliable of starters in the Mets’ rotation despite the kind of fastball you can buy, 25 for $3, at just about any public batting cage. But his collection of off-speed stuff, particularly his changeup, keeps hitters accustomed to triple-digit heat almost comically off-balance.
“I guess that throwing really hard isn’t as unique as it used to be,’’ Vargas (5-5, 3.96 ERA) said. “I’m at the other end of the spectrum now. I think i’m the only one who throws that slow.’’
The combination of slow (Cano) and slowest (Vargas) conspired to give the Mets their sixth win in their last nine games but still left them eight games under .500, 13 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL East and seven games back in the wild-card hunt with eight teams between them and the last playoff berth.
“What’s happened, happened,’’ Callaway said. “It’s tough to look back and have regrets. We wish our record was better at this point, that’s something we regret, but to have regrets about the past would not be productive. We’re moving forward and trying to get this record where we want it to be.’’
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