Refusing to sit, Miggy now ready to stand tall
Tigers' Cabrera, enduring injury-filled finish, set to tackle A's in AL Division Series
DETROIT -- Justin Verlander has spent the past two months building himself up to be ready for the postseason. Miguel Cabrera has spent much of the same time tearing himself down for it.
Now, we'll see just how much the reigning American League MVP can do.
This is why Cabrera kept playing over the final few weeks, even after it was clear his groin and abdominal injuries were hampering him.
"When you see the MVP, Triple Crown winner, going out there and busting his tail each and every day and giving it all he has -- you have a tremendous amount of respect for him and that just motivates you," Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson said last week to Fox Sports Detroit.
This is why, even after the Tigers clinched their third consecutive division title and the third seed in the AL playoffs, Cabrera wanted to play until the regular-season finale.
"Eight days, that's too many days off," Cabrera said over the weekend, bracing for the best-of-five AL Division Series against the A's beginning in Oakland on Friday at 9:37 p.m. ET on TBS. "We want to be ready for the playoffs. That's why everybody sees me in the lineup. I want to play the same way I play before, so let's get some at-bats and be ready for the playoffs."
This is one of the reasons why, even after a limited September left him short of the American League home run and RBI titles, trailing Baltimore breakout Chris Davis in both, he considered this a successful follow-up to his Triple Crown.
"I still have a good season," Cabrera said. "I mean, I even have the same numbers. It's good. We clinched the playoffs. We won the division for three straight years."
This is a big reason why, even after a season-ending sweep in Miami that included a no-hitter on the day Cabrera finally took a game off to rest, the Tigers lineup is an offensive force.
"You're talking about the best hitter in baseball," manager Jim Leyland said, "and his presence alone in the lineup -- whether he's as hot as he normally is or not -- is worth his weight in gold. When you're a pitcher and you come to the park and you see Cabrera in the lineup, you look one way. And when you see him not in the lineup, you look another way."
Take the leaderboard out of consideration, and statistically, Cabrera has a case that he topped his Triple Crown season. Cabrera's .348 average not only topped his league-leading .330 clip from 2012, it marked the highest average of his 11-year Major League career. After four- and six-point victories in the batting race the previous two years, his 24-point gap over Minnesota's Joe Mauer this year was the second-highest in the last 10 years.
Cabrera hit the same home-run total as last year -- 44 -- in 67 fewer at-bats, matching his career high, and fell just two RBIs shy of last season. His 1.078 OPS was easily the highest of his career.
In the process, he also hit his way into a more rare piece of history than the Triple Crown. Just eight other players in Major League history have won three consecutive batting crowns. Just three were right-handed hitters, none since Rogers Hornsby's dynasty of six in a row in the 1920s.
Cabrera's 2012 batting title came despite an 0-for-22 slump in April, one shy of his career long, and an 0-for-17 slump in June. This year, despite abdominal and groin issues since the end of June, he never went more than two full games without a base hit, and even that happened just twice. His longest slump was an 0-for-10 skid in September.
"He's the best hitter in baseball, there's no question about it," Leyland said. "He gets no infield hits. He doesn't get any breaks because he's not able to leg any out. And he hits the ball over the fence to all fields and he drives in big runs."
And he pretty much did the back half of that on one good leg. He thrived that way in August, batting .356 with 11 homers and 31 RBIs. It finally caught up with him in a September that saw him sapped of that explosive power. He batted .278 (20-for-72) in September with one homer, one double and seven RBIs.
It was enough to have Leyland concerned. It was not enough for Leyland to bench him. The two talked it over more than once down the stretch, including after the division was clinched. If he's going to be limited on his mobility, the thought process went, better than manage his way around the bases with his timing at the plate.
With the division sealed, Cabrera finished his regular season with back-to-back two-hit games in Miami. It was just the second time he had strung those together since late August.
"I'm really happy where Cabrera is right now," Leyland said. "I think he's getting it back. He looks really good."
He's not where he was, but to Leyland, he's close. Leyland senses it. Cabrera feels it. He has gone this far avoiding a prolonged slump. Even if he can't hit for the same power, he'd like to hit big now.
"That's the goal," he said. "I'm very positive I'm going to be good."