As soon as the ball came off the bat wielded by Yangervis Solarte in the second inning of Sunday’s game at Rogers Centre you sensed it spelled trouble for the Toronto Blue Jays.
The ball was not struck especially hard by the New York Yankees third baseman, or especially deep, and it appeared likely that it would fall safely into shallow centre for a single.
Melky Cabrera had other ideas.
Making a rare start in centre field, Cabrera perfectly gauged the ball’s flight path and galloped forward to make a fine running catch for the second out of the inning.
That was not something that Cabrera would have been able to manage last season in a year where he could have used a walker to navigate the outfield, his gait severely compromised by leg and back issues.
The 29-year-old missed a combined 72 games with two stints on the disabled list and was shut down for good on Aug. 2.
Later that month, doctors made the startling discovery that Cabrera had a benign tumour on his spine that was causing him persistent back and leg pain.
The tumour was removed and so far in 2014 Cabrera has returned to form, not only defensively but at the plate where his early-season production has been one of the bright spots in an otherwise pop-gun Blue Jays offence.
Cabrera homered for the third straight game for the first time in his career on Sunday but it was far from enough as the Yankees rang up an early lead and hung on for a 6-4 victory before 34,067 fans.
With the win the Yankees (3-3) swiped the three-game set from Toronto (3-4), two games to one. It was the first home series of the year for Toronto, who split a four-game set last week in Tampa against the Rays.
Cabrera had the opportunity to be the hero as he came to bat in the ninth inning with runners at first and second and two out and the Blue Jays trailing by two.
And he put a charge into the pitch hurled by New York closer David Robertson and stroked a line drive to right field that elicited a brief gasp of delight from the home crowd.
But the elation quickly turned to sorrow as the ball was driven directly at the sure-handed Ichiro Suzuki and the right fielder squeezed the ball safely in his glove to end the game.
“To have a big year you’ve got to start winning some games like this,” lamented John Gibbons, the Blue Jays manager. “It’s not easy and you can’t fall behind, spot them five runs, fall behind 6-1.
“But there comes a time you’ve got to start winning some of these games, especially at home. You’ve got to find that magic, you’ve got to have that magic. And hopefully we’ll find that soon.”
Toronto starter Drew Hutchison, who is coming back from elbow surgery and won his first start of the season last week against the Rays, struggled with his control, walking two in the first inning and also hitting a batter.
The Yankees took advantage, scoring three times off just one hit – a double by former Blue Jay Kelly Johnson – that brought in two of the runs.
In the bottom of the inning, the switch-hitting Cabrera – in the leadoff spot as Jose Reyes continues to rehab from a hamstring injury – crushed an 0-1 pitch from Yankee starter CC Sabathia over the left-field fence for his third home run of the season.
Cabrera has now hit safely in all seven of Toronto’s games this year and is averaging a lofty .323.
He got the start in centre for the first time since he joined the Blue Jays in 2013 as Gibbons decided to give a bit of a break to Colby Rasmus, who is 0-6 in his career against Sabathia, with five strikeouts.
“He’s healthy,” Gibbons said when asked about Cabrera’s welcome transformation from last year. “He looked good at the beginning of last year in spring training, all of a sudden started to go downhill fast. We had no idea why.
“But he’s always been able to hit. That’s why he was acquired here.”
The Yankees got to Hutchison again in the three-run fourth, highlighted by a two-run homer by Brett Gardner that brought the score to 6-1.
The Yankees had not managed a home run through their first five games.
Hutchison got the hook in the fourth inning, giving up all six New York runs off six hits.
The Blue Jays responded by scoring three of their own with a two-out rally in the sixth inning, including a single by Erik Kratz that brought two of the runners in and cut the Yankees’ lead to 6-4.
For a Toronto team that has not been able to score more than four runs in any of their games this season, that was more than enough of a cushion.