The Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, left, points to teammate Prince Fielder during a recent game. Both sluggers are on pace to rack up more than 160 RBIs each, which has not been accomplished since 1999.
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DETROIT — The Tigers made Prince Fielder the richest player in franchise history last year with the thought of forging the best heart-of-the-order tandem in baseball.
Turns out, they may have undersold expectations.
Could Miguel Cabrera and Fielder be one of the greatest back-to-back punches ... ever?
The Tigers stars are strengthening the case by the day, with their 450-plus-foot homers Friday the latest feat in an early-season tear that could give way to history. Cabrera and Fielder began Saturday ranked first and second in MLB with 40 and 33 RBIs, respectively.
Detroit manager Jim Leyland called Cabrera and Fielder the “best 3-4 I’ve ever had.” Outfielder Torii Hunter took it further and called the pair the “best 3-4 I’ve ever seen.”
“I've seen some 3-4s,” said Hunter, a 17-year big-league veteran, “but these guys are doing it, and in a big ballpark too.”
Who knows if Cabrera and Fielder can keep doing it at a similar rate?
It is dangerous to make projections in mid-May, especially when it comes to RBI — a statistic based in large part on the performance of teammates. As Leyland said Saturday, opposing pitchers want to make anyone but Cabrera and Fielder beat them.
Still, the pair’s early paces are staggering enough to note. Cabrera and Fielder are both on pace to drive in more than 160 runs — a threshold surpassed only once since 1938, by Cleveland’s Manny Ramirez in 1999 (165 RBI).
Cabrera is the first Tigers player to reach 40 RBIs through 33 games since Hank Greenberg had 41 at the same juncture in his 183 RBI season in 1937, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He is on pace for 196 RBIs — five more than Hack Wilson’s all-time record in 1930 — and 255 hits. Ichiro Suzuki holds the hits record with 262 in 2004.
The knock-on-wood best sign one of the Tigers’ sluggers could flirt with history: Few players are more durable. Cabrera played at least 150 games in each of his first nine full big-league seasons, while Fielder has never played fewer than 157.
NO BIG DEAL: Count Indians manager Terry Francona among those tired hearing about the Year of the Strikeout.
“We’re going to strike out the way our team’s built,” he said. “What I care about is scoring runs. I don’t want to fall into that where I’m starting to get old and it’s like, well we used to do it this way. If you look at the runs scored when I played and the runs scored now, you score more runs now. ... The game’s changed.
"It’s not just hitters’ approaches. It’s managers’ approaches too. People bunt less because it proves itself out that you’re hurting your team’s chances to score.”
There were an average of 15.29 strikeouts per game in April, the most for any month in history, according to Elias. Despite adding several high-strikeout, high-power bats, the Indians have so far defied the trend. They began Saturday with 266 strikeouts — tied for eighth-most in the AL — and the league’s second-best average (2.69).
HE’S BACK: The Indians’ wild but potent top pitching prospect is on his way back to Cleveland.
Francona confirmed Trevor Bauer will start the second game of the Tribe’s traditional doubleheader Monday against the Yankees. The 2011 first-round draft pick went 1-1 in his two previous starts for the Indians, allowing three runs on three hits and 13 walks over 10 innings. Bauer’s last start at Triple-A Columbus featured his best and wildest. He no-hit Charlotte over 6 2/3 innings but allowed four walks and hit four.