Hobbled by ailments, slugger getting healthier at just the right time
DETROIT -- The Tigers had every reason to feel dejected as the American League Championship Series swung to the Motor City on the heels of David Ortiz's prodigious, momentum-shifting grand slam on Sunday night. But there's also a big reason for optimism around this group, and it has nothing to do with having arguably the best big-game pitcher taking the ball for them on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET on FOX.
It's about having the greatest hitter on the planet.
"I think he's getting better," Game 3 starter Justin Verlander said of third baseman Miguel Cabrera.
"Miguel might be getting stronger," right fielder Torii Hunter said. "That's probably the healthiest I've seen him since August, maybe."
Hunter was talking prior to the Tigers' optional workout on Monday afternoon, one day removed from the crushing 6-5 loss in Game 2 that saw Cabrera belt a solo homer over the Green Monster on a high breaking ball from Clay Buchholz in the sixth and fly out on a drive to deep center field in the seventh.
Hunter believes that Cabrera has "more bat control" lately, with two homers, three hits and only two strikeouts in his last three playoff games, but he was most impressed by the way Cabrera sprinted toward foul territory to catch Jacoby Ellsbury's foul popup in the bottom of the sixth inning on Sunday.
"I saw him closing in on the ball and was like, 'That's different,'" Hunter said. "I don't know if he has good Advil or Tylenol. One of the two."
Verlander noticed a different Cabrera in the fourth inning of Game 5 of the AL Division Series, against the A's, when he blasted a two-run homer for his first extra-base hit of the playoffs, a homer that proved to be the difference in the ace right-hander's eight-inning gem.
"That was the first time I've really seen him get through that front side, get through his hip and turn on a ball like that," Verlander said. "BP is looking more and more impressive, and what he's doing on the field is translating."
The thing is, it's hard to differentiate between Cabrera getting healthier or just continuing to be supernatural.
Cabrera basically played on one leg for the final three months of the regular season, yet he still became the first right-handed hitter since Rogers Hornsby to win three straight batting titles (with a .348 average), tied his homer total from last year's Triple Crown season (44) in 13 fewer games, posted a career-high OPS (1.078) and made himself the favorite for a second straight AL MVP nod.
Verlander openly calls Cabrera "the best hitter in the world," even when he's hurt.
"At 80 percent, I think he's that much better," Verlander said. "I know I'm kind of biased in saying that, but every time someone new comes to this ballclub -- Torii this year, guys last year -- they always have the same reaction about Miggy. They're like, 'God, we knew he was good, but …' And there's always that 'but.' 'We didn't know he was that good.'"
Cabrera's hip flexor started bothering him during a series in St. Petersburg in late June. He exited back-to-back games early in late August because of an abdominal strain, missed the next three days, missed another game a day later, left the Sept. 21 contest in the 10th inning with a sore groin and was absent from the lineup on Sept. 22.
Without much of a base, Cabrera surged through August with a .356/.430/.733 slash line. But the injuries caught up to him in September, when he batted a pedestrian .278 and hit only one home run.
But he played on, all the way through, even though the Tigers clinched a playoff spot early and even though serving as a designated hitter wasn't an option because Victor Martinez needs to be in the lineup. When the playoffs began in Oakland, manager Jim Leyland simply called Cabrera "playable" and hoped for the best.
"Oh, I think he's better," Leyland said. "But -- and I've been saying this for quite a while now -- he's not going to be at 100 percent the rest of the season, and hopefully we have a lot of season left. But I do think there are days when he's a little bit better, yes. And I think last night he was better."
Sunday's homer tied Cabrera with Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg for the most RBIs in Tigers postseason history, with 22, and extended his playoff on-base streak to 31 -- a Major League record he established four games ago.
Hitting coach Lloyd McClendon has seen gradual improvement in Cabrera "for the last three weeks." Asked if Sunday's showing had more to do with being healthier or making an adjustment to compensate for his ailments, McClendon said, "It's a combination of both."
"Time heals, there's no question about that, and he's making some adjustments," McClendon added. "He's a very intelligent guy. Guys have pitched him different, and he's had to make adjustments accordingly."
And that's a very reassuring sign, particularly for a team that was just punched in the gut.
"It feels great," Hunter said. "That's the best hitter on the planet. It feels good that he's finally getting that feel back on his leg. Look, he's far from 100 percent. I mean, you're still talking about 80 percent. But Miggy at 80 percent -- I'm pretty sure that most teams will take him."