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Miggy's availability key question down stretch

Club balancing being cautious with need to have slugger in lineup

BOSTON -- Tigers manager Jim Leyland has spent most of the summer struggling to find new superlatives to describe Miguel Cabrera. It's not that he doesn't appreciate what he has been watching; it's that he has seen so much of it.

Leyland has seen Cabrera win back-to-back batting titles and put himself in position to become the first right-handed hitter since Rogers Hornsby to win three in a row. He saw Cabrera win baseball's first Triple Crown in 45 seasons last year, and has now seen him put up a serious bid to become the first player to win two in a row.

He has seen home runs crushing to the opposite field with the flick of a wrist, and he has seen Cabrera homer off the greatest closer in the history of the game twice in three days -- once to tie a game with two outs in the ninth inning after fouling two pitches off his leg. Yet what Leyland is seeing now astounds him.

Cabrera has been doing all of this hobbled for much the summer.

"When he's been crippled up for the last three weeks or four weeks, whatever it's been, he's hit as good or better than he did when he was totally healthy," Leyland said this week. "That's why it is totally amazing. It's mind-boggling, really.

"I'll be honest with you. I'm not one of those guys that oohs and aahs very much. And up to this point -- this season, last season -- I really can't believe what I'm seeing, to be honest with you. And I'm not one that gets carried away. I don't get silly and corny and all that stuff. But I really can't believe what I'm seeing."

Leyland sees the treatment Cabrera goes through to prepare himself for a game. He has learned to tell the signs when Cabrera is in pain, beyond the obvious hitch in his stride rounding first base.

"Our goal is to make sure he is fine. Nobody has ever said to us that shutting him down for an extended period will make him better."
-- Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski

On Wednesday, Cabrera was named the American League's Player of the Month for August. Add up the hip flexor that began bothering him early in the summer with the abdominal strain that officials say is now bothering him in his groin, and Cabrera basically won Player of the Month on one leg.

Cabrera's aches and pains began near the end of June, starting with the hip flexor -- sustained during Detroit's series at Tampa Bay. Since the start of that set, he's batting .333 (36-for-183) with 21 home runs, 52 RBIs and a Major League-best 1.136 OPS. Only Alfonso Soriano has more homers and RBIs among Major League players over that span, and he has 45 more at-bats than Cabrera.

The question, at some point down the stretch, will be when Leyland and the Tigers will have seen enough. It's not a question now, and it won't be one as long as there's a division race to be won, maybe even playoff seeding at stake. But should Detroit clinch its third consecutive division title with several days to spare, it'll come up.

For most players, it would be a formality to rest up a little before the playoffs. For Cabrera, it could be the difference in history.

If Cabrera can keep playing through the pain, he has the chance to finish the regular season with the kind of numbers no one has seen in four generations. Not since Jimmie Foxx in 1932 has a player batted .350 or better with 50 home runs and 150 RBIs. Cabrera is on pace for exactly those totals while batting .355.

In baseball, that's immortality. In baseball's postseason starting in October, they'll mean nothing. And that's the potential tug-of-war the Tigers face, even if the pull isn't particularly strong at the moment.

The Tigers traded half-a-dozen players for Cabrera six years ago in owner Mike Ilitch's near decade-long quest to win a World Series. That has always been the end goal, even though the addition of a superstar has taken baseball in Detroit to new heights of national popularity.

None of the numbers will provide much balm if the Tigers can't win it. And there's serious question whether they can win it without Cabrera. They're 10-3 without Cabrera starting in the regular season, but that's the regular season.

"He knows he can still be a force playing handicapped," Leyland said. "And we've been very fortunate to play as well as we have, but that luck will run out at some point if he's not in there. We've been very fortunate, but I wouldn't keep counting on that.

"It's not to slight somebody else that's in the lineup. I mean, you can miss a good player. But when you're talking about the elite, they change the strategy."

Championship aspirations not only drive Ilitch, they drive Cabrera. Through all the adulation over his individual achievement and regular-season greatness, he has said time and again that the main goal is to win. Cabrera has never allowed what he has done to overshadow what the team's trying to do.

"It's about getting it done and trying to win games," Cabrera said recently.

The Tigers have made their motives clear.

"Our primary concern with Miguel Cabrera is making sure he's healthy -- if he gets to that point, healthy," team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said last week. "If the doctor tells us he's in a position where he's making it worse by playing, we will not play him. As much as anybody would like to see him win the home run title, the RBI title, the Triple Crown, he's is playing for the good of the team.

"Our goal is to make sure he is fine. Nobody has ever said to us that shutting him down for an extended period will make him better. He's made progress. He at times has tweaked his situation, but he continues to be day to day at this point. He has some good days, some bad days. Unfortunately, he's just done something to hurt himself, tweak it at times."

By all accounts, that remains the case. Cabrera left back-to-back games last week in the early innings, missed three consecutive games over Labor Day weekend, played the entire game Tuesday in Boston, then missed Wednesday's series finale with soreness.

It wasn't an aggravation of the strain, Cabrera indicated Wednesday night, but soreness. His plan for Thursday's off-day was complete rest, which hopefully would get the soreness out and allow him back on the field for Friday's series opener at Kansas City.

Detroit will go into that game with a 6 1/2-game lead on Cleveland in the AL Central and a magic number of 17. Cabrera, meanwhile, already has enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, and he has a 20-point lead. He holds a healthy lead in RBIs for the season, and he's still just four homers behind Baltimore's Chris Davis.

If Cabrera can play, he'll play. The Tigers need him. They also need him in October.

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.
Read More: Detroit Tigers, Miguel Cabrera