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Miggy mirroring Pujols' dignified finish

Future Hall of Famers trying to produce as pains mount
MLB.com @jonmorosi

DETROIT -- When Miguel Cabrera approached Albert Pujols behind the batting cage Tuesday at Comerica Park to congratulate him on his 600th career home run, he did so with a blend of respect, happiness and humor. Cabrera told him that -- as long as it didn't cost the Tigers a win -- he would've rather witnessed Pujols' milestone in person than on television.

One day later, Cabrera recounted how, as a 17-year-old Minor Leaguer, he sat in the stands for a 2001 Cardinals-Marlins Spring Training game in Viera, Fla., because he wanted to watch Pujols, then 21, as he captivated the baseball world's attention.

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DETROIT -- When Miguel Cabrera approached Albert Pujols behind the batting cage Tuesday at Comerica Park to congratulate him on his 600th career home run, he did so with a blend of respect, happiness and humor. Cabrera told him that -- as long as it didn't cost the Tigers a win -- he would've rather witnessed Pujols' milestone in person than on television.

One day later, Cabrera recounted how, as a 17-year-old Minor Leaguer, he sat in the stands for a 2001 Cardinals-Marlins Spring Training game in Viera, Fla., because he wanted to watch Pujols, then 21, as he captivated the baseball world's attention.

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Pujols, in turn, has shared lessons with Cabrera over the years. Cabrera still remembers the time, during his first season in the Majors, when Pujols admonished him for taking a hittable pitch with a runner on third base and less than two out.

"He said, 'Why did you do that?'" Cabrera recalled during an interview with MLB.com before the Tigers' 4-0 victory over the Angels on Wednesday. "I told him I wanted to see a pitch. He said, 'Why would you want to "see a pitch" with a man in scoring position?'"

And so the conversation has continued for more than a decade, nuances passing between future Hall of Famers on a frequency undetectable by the rest of us. They are friendly competitors, having traded the title of "game's best hitter" to and from one another at various points in the millennium.

Pujols' career OPS is .959. Cabrera's is .958. Pujols has won three National League Most Valuable Player Awards. That's one more MVP Award than Cabrera has in the American League -- but Miggy won the AL Triple Crown in 2012.

Now comes the natural follow-up: Will Cabrera, with 451 home runs, one day join Pujols in the 600 Club? Cabrera smiled.

"They've got to bring these fences in -- 400 feet, not 420," he said.

Video: DeRosa compares Cabrera and Pujols, their history

Cabrera laughed heartily, making clear that he has no animosity toward Comerica Park's vast center-field dimension. And yet he won't deny the physical frustration he's felt during the 2017 season.

Cabrera missed nine games while on the disabled list with a strained groin. He was out for three more last month with an oblique injury. Cabrera has dealt with lower back pain for much of the season.

On advice from the Tigers' athletic training staff, Cabrera adopted a diet and exercise regimen aimed at losing weight. He is trying to ease the burden on his back and right ankle, which was surgically repaired after the 2014 season.

"I've lost 20 pounds this season," Cabrera said. "You can't do that in-season. You feel weak. But I need to do it. I need it for my back, if I want to feel healthy. I want there to be less pressure on my ankle."

For now, Cabrera is encouraged. But he sees the same numbers as everyone else: He's hit two home runs since the start of May -- and five all season.

"Look at my year," Cabrera said flatly. "I've been poor. [I've had] injuries, but I feel better now. I feel good today. Hopefully, I can do this consistently."

Wait. Let's go back to a word he used. Poor. Does he really feel that way?

"Yeah," Cabrera affirmed. "I've been inconsistent. One day, good. Two days, no good. One day, good. I've been swinging better, hitting the ball right at guys, but I feel like I can do better."

Cabrera's OPS this season is .802. Over a full year, that would be his worst since 2003, when he broke into the Majors with 87 games for the Marlins.

Cabrera was reminded that he was in a similar position last year -- with an OPS below .800 in mid-May -- before recovering to make his 11th All-Star team.

"I feel the same thing now," he said. "Hopefully, I can do it. But [I can't] talk about it. I have to go out on the field and prove it.

"I can get concerned about what I'm going to do. When I'm feeling confident, I don't think too much at home plate. I try to believe in my hands, see the ball and hit it."

Cabrera is trying to convince himself that his next hot streak is one game away. Based on track record, that's a reasonable expectation. But he's also 34 years old and keenly aware of his larger personal and professional circumstances: Cabrera is signed to a contract that will pay him $32 million during his age-40 season -- in 2023 -- for a franchise that could begin reshaping its roster as early as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Does Cabrera think about making sure he's a productive player until the end of his contract?

"That's my responsibility," he said. "It's something we feel, inside us. We've got to do this -- for the Tigers. You don't just sign a contract and not care. I care."

If this narrative reminds you a little of Pujols' years in Anaheim, it should. Pujols runs unevenly on many nights because of chronic pain in his right foot, yet he has not spent a day on the disabled list since 2013. Even as his batting average fell, Pujols averaged 36 home runs and 107 RBIs over the past two seasons.

Pujols, it seems, has retained the lesson he taught to the young Cabrera about attacking pitches with men in scoring position. Where once Cabrera aspired to mirror Pujols' ascendance -- and did -- he now admires the quiet dignity of a courageous decline.

"I appreciate what he's doing," Cabrera said. "He wants to play."

Jon Paul Morosi is a reporter for MLB.com and MLB Network. He has also covered baseball for FOX Sports, the Detroit Free Press and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Detroit Tigers, Miguel Cabrera