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3/6/2013 5:27 P.M. ET

Cano not only star of DR, but also a role model

All eyes to be on second baseman when team begins Classic on Thursday

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- There might be some discussion about which Major League player is most popular in the Dominican Republic. If the list is narrowed to those who will be representing the baseball-mad country in the World Baseball Classic, though, the answer is easy.

"I'd have to say Robinson Cano," said manager Tony Pena.

"Definitely Cano," agreed third-base coach Juan Samuel.

So with Albert Pujols and David Ortiz unable to participate in the Classic because of injuries, Team Dominican beat the Yankees, 8-2, at George M. Steinbrenner Field in its final tuneup game Wednesday afternoon. The team then flew to San Juan, where it will open the tournament against Venezuela at Hiram Bithorn Stadium on Thursday night. And, on a team of stars, none will be more avidly watched in his native land than Cano.

"He does a lot for the kids, a lot for the country. Charity work," Samuel said. "You invite him to a function, and if you give him enough time, he doesn't say no. I've invited him myself. That's noticed down there. Plus, the Yankees are a popular club. Most of their games are televised in the Dominican. So playing for that huge market that's followed a lot is part of it. And his numbers. He's one of the best."

This is a big year for the Yankees' four-time All-Star second baseman. Not only does Cano's team figure to be in for a dogfight in the deep and balanced American League East, he can be a free agent at the end of the season. So he's putting himself out there a little bit by taking part in the Classic.

"That's huge," said Pena, the Yankees' bench coach. "I have to tip my cap to this kid. He's put his country on top of everything, and you have to respect that. And whenever a player does that, you have to respect him even more."

The obvious storyline Wednesday was Cano playing against his teammates. Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda faced him in the first inning.

"I wish I could get better results, but he's a good hitter," the right-hander said.

It was pointed out to Kuroda that he retired Cano on a routine fly to left. "I wished to strike him out," he said.

"That was fun," Cano said. "I was laughing at first, but he was tough. I had faced him when he was with the Dodgers, so I'd seen him before. But these are the games just to have fun. It doesn't count. It doesn't mean anything for us. It was just a chance to go out and get ready."

The Dominican team certainly looks ready. It beat the Phillies and Yankees in its two practice games by a combined score of 23-4 while piling up 41 hits. Cano went 1-for-3 on Wednesday with an RBI single in the fifth.

"I'm glad to see our ballclub doing what we're doing," Pena said. "I like the enthusiasm. I like the way they go at it. Before any tournament starts, everybody has a chance. But I like my ballclub. The only thing is how much effort they put into it. And that's very important."

Padres right-hander Edinson Volquez will be the starting pitcher in Game 1, reprising his role from the 2009 Classic. "That was a good experience for me," he said. "The bad thing was we lost, but this year we hope it doesn't happen again.

"I'm big-time excited. A game like that only happens once every four years. It's awesome to play with these guys. You don't get to have all those guys behind you very often."

Cano also mentioned that the Dominican Republic has some added motivation after being eliminated in the first round by two losses to The Netherlands four years ago, adding that he thinks two impressive wins going in demonstrate what the team is capable of.

"I can't wait. We have a bad feeling because of last time. So we're going to go out there and do our jobs and do the little things we didn't do back then," Cano said. "We know we have some guys who have power. We've got speed. We've got pitching. And the good thing is everybody is willing to take a walk if they don't get their pitch. Everybody doesn't try to be the hero. So hopefully we'll carry that into the [tournament]."

Cano knows that people back home will be watching him, rooting for him, but he tries not to think about that, preferring to focus on the game. But he said he never thought about not playing in the Classic.

"You're going to represent your country, your family, the fans that see you learn," he said. "Now you're a superstar or you play at the big league level and you just represent your country. It gives them a chance to be with you. They cheer for you and you see how loud they are."

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.