By Sean McAdam
ARLINGTON, Texas -- You hear it all the time: The playoffs are a whole new season, a break from the long, six-month, 162-game grind, a fresh start after the long journey.
But someone, apparently, forgot to tell Robinson Cano and Josh Hamilton.
At the end of the September, with Cano's New York Yankees and Hamilton's Texas Rangers each headed for the playoffs, they were widely seen as the top two candidates for the American League Most Valuable Player award.
Ballots were due the day after the regular season ended, with Hamilton considered the slight favorite despite missing most of the final month of the season because of two broken ribs.
But even before the award- winner is announced in November, Cano and Hamilton are extending the debate right through the course of the American League Championship Series. Their one-on-one battle forms a fascinating subtext to the ALCS.
The Rangers hold a 3-to-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, and the personal competition between Hamilton and Cano is even more closely fought. Both players have hit four homers in the five games to date; Hamilton boasts an 1.458 OPS while Cano is at a blistering 1.555.
The votes have been counted, but neither Cano nor Hamilton will quit.
"Two dangerous guys on both sides, said Cano's teammate, Curtis Granderson said. Both teams would be happy to have either one. Both teams are happy with the guy they have. You hear the constant chants (of 'MVP . . . MVP') here and in Texas and it's going to be interesting to see who gets it when it's all said and done.
"Both of those guys have lived up to what they have done during the course of the 2010 season and also this postseason. Seems like there's no stopping any of those guys.''
Added Texas manager Ron Washington: "Two pretty good players. Cano hits the ball as hard as anyone, and Hamilton just drives line drives out of the ballpark. You know, you have two quality teams playing here, you never know what's going to happen each day and these are two guys that are difference-makers. And they'll probably be difference-makers as long as we're playing.
Still recovering from the rib injury, Hamilton had a slow start to the postseason, collecting just one RBI in the Rangers' five-game ALDS win over the Tampa Bay Rays. But as the series progressed, Hamilton began seeing the ball better and rediscovered his swing.
That was evident in his very first plate appearance of the ALCS when he smoked a three-run homer, helping the Rangers spring to an early lead they ultimately forfeited thanks to an eighth-inning bullpen malfunction.
Cano, meanwhile, virtually carried what little there was of the Yankees' offense in the first four games. New York got next to nothing from the likes of Alex Rodriguez (no extra-base hits) and Mark Teixeira (no hits, period).
Teixeira is sidelined the rest of the way because of a strained hamstring, forcing Joe Girardi to move Cano from his customary fifth spot in the Yankee lineup to third, Teixeira's normal role.
Where he hits in the batting order, of course, is of little consequence. The Rangers have to contain him somehow, and to date, they've not been very successful.
"He's hitting everything,'' bemoaned Washington at Thursday's workout. "He's hitting breaking balls, balls down and away, hitting balls up. He's just a tremendous hitter.''
If the Yankees can win the next two games here, Cano seems the obvious choice for ALCS MVP. If the Rangers win in Game Seven and Cliff Lee pitches anywhere near as well as he did in Game Three, he's the likely winner; if the Rangers wrap up the series Friday night, Hamilton could well be selected as the ALCS MVP.
Given that the ALCS MVP will almost certain come from the winning team, Cano and Hamilton would undoubtedly prefer that honor to the one from the regular season. This weekend, one of the two will see his season brought to an abrupt halt, while the other moves on to the World Series, the ultimate goal.
But either way, their extended competition continues. What began across the regular season extends now deep into the postseason, a battle waged even after the voting has stopped.