HOUSTON -- The Mariners are doing a lot of things right these days, as evidenced by 15 wins in their last 20 games and a surprising 2 1/2-game lead over the Rangers in the early American League West race. Good pitching, timely hitting ... and a whole lot of production from Robinson Cano.
The Mariners' second baseman continued his outstanding start with a four-RBI night in Thursday's 6-3 win over the Astros, including the game-winning three-run double in the top of the ninth to hike his American League total to 30 RBIs in his first 28 games.
It took Cano 83 games last year -- and 86 by the team -- before he reached the 30-RBI plateau on July 9. So, yeah, things are different this year. And one reason, says the six-time All-Star, is he's being more aggressive at the plate and jumping on pitches early in counts, as he did with a 1-0 cutter from Luke Gregerson to break open a tie game in the ninth with his third hit of the night.
"My problem last year in the beginning of the season, and sometimes in the second half, too, I was taking the first pitch right down the middle," Cano said. "This year, I said I'm going to be ready from the first pitch, because I know when you get behind, it's hard and then you have to swing at the pitcher's pitch."
Cano has been the difference maker all year for a club that is a surprising 17-11. He's now hitting .287 with nine home runs along with his 30 RBIs, and he's hit .405 with three homers and 16 RBIs in his last 10 games.
"He's been great," said catcher Chris Iannetta. "It's great to see. Any time someone has a tough year -- and I wouldn't consider last year a tough year -- but it wasn't normally what you would expect out of Robbie. But he dealt with some stuff and he's healthy this year and he's playing really well."
"He's using the whole field," said manager Scott Servais. "He's not trying to hit homers, he's not trying to kill the ball, he's just using his hands. He's got great talent, the ball jumps off the bat and he's getting good pitches to hit. If you look at the at-bats, he finds a way to get into good counts. He's aggressive, but he's looking for his pitch."
Cano is enjoying being part of the Mariners' turnaround, and he credited leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki, who reached base four times Thursday, and Leonys Martin, who had two stolen bases, for helping set the table.
"I would say everything is falling into place," Cano said.
And maybe it's coincidence, but in games against the Astros and standout second baseman Jose Altuve -- who went 4-for-4 with a home run and double in his own spectacular show on Thursday -- Cano has shined the brightest. Of his 30 RBIs, 14 have come in four games against Houston.
Cano doesn't feel a personal rivalry with Altuve, but rather a respect for his game.
"I enjoy watching him," Cano said. "He's a guy that anytime he swings, you know something good is going to happen. It's always fun to watch guys, especially at second base, be so successful as he's been the last 3-4 years. He's great.
"I don't mind if he's a second baseman or whatever base he plays. I enjoy playing. I'm not the kind of guy that wants to do it all at second base. We all have a chance. Honestly, I really enjoy seeing him play and also running the bases. He can fly."
And that respect is mutual.
"For me, he's the best second baseman in the league and top five hitter in baseball," Altuve said. "You always have to be aware when he's hitting."
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.