DETROIT — That sweet swing is still there. No matter how banged up Miguel Cabrera has been, he’s always a threat to hit the ball where nobody can catch it.
It’s the rest of his duties that have looked more and more painful. Those jogs out of the batter’s box became progressively slower — and although Cabrera helped the Detroit Tigers win the AL Central for a third straight year, even they can’t be sure what to expect from their best hitter in the postseason.
“He’s not 100 percent,” manager Jim Leyland said. “He’s been playing in a lot of pain. He’s a real tough guy. I think if anybody knew the pain he’s playing in, they probably wouldn’t believe it.”
After winning the Triple Crown in 2012, Cabrera was even better for much of this season. By the end of August, he looked well on his way to one of the American League’s best offensive seasons of the last 50 years.
His final numbers were still terrific — a .348 average with 44 homers and 137 RBIs — but toward the end, a number of nagging problems began to add up.
“It doesn’t matter right now,” Cabrera said. “You’ve got to be ready to play. Go out there and play hard.”
Cabrera missed a game in early July with a bad back, and on July 22 against the Chicago White Sox, he exited early with what the team said was a sore left hip flexor. After missing four games, the star third baseman homered in his first at-bat July 27 against Philadelphia.
That began a remarkable pattern in which Cabrera would miss time because of one injury or another — but still put up staggering numbers when he did play. He was bothered by a strained lower abdomen, but after missing a few days in early August, he came back to help Detroit sweep a key four-game series at Cleveland.
Then he homered in all three games of a road series against the New York Yankees, twice off Mariano Rivera. The first homer off Rivera was the most memorable — a tying two-run shot in the ninth inning that came while Cabrera was still hobbling after fouling two balls off his left shin in the at-bat. The Tigers ended up losing, but it was still one of the highlights of the season.
Then on Aug. 20, Cabrera aggravated a strain in his groin, abdominal, and hip area. He kept playing, never going on the disabled list, but his numbers finally dipped. At the end of an Aug. 26 game against Oakland, Cabrera was hitting .359 with 43 homers and 130 RBIs. He’s since hit .284 with only two extra-base hits in 25 games.
Now the Tigers enter the AL division series against the Athletics hoping their slugger has had enough time to work through his various ailments.
“Every day we can give Miggy off and let him rest his groin is a good thing,” said right-hander Max Scherzer, who will start Game 1 on Friday.
The abdominal and groin issues have probably been most apparent when Cabrera has been running the bases. Getting from home to second even on a hard-hit ball has looked like more of a challenge for him lately.
Of course, it should be noted that the Tigers were in control in the Central throughout September, clinching the division title in the fourth-to-last game of the season. Detroit didn’t need Cabrera at full speed.
“The injury is still there,” Leyland said. “I think some days it’s worse than others.”
After the Tigers clinched, Cabrera had four hits in a two-game span at Miami.
“This time of year it gets late real fast, but I really like the way he’s swinging the bat right now,” Leyland said. “I think his timing is back pretty darn good.”
Cabrera hopes so. He may end up winning a second straight MVP award despite his slow September, but what matters now is whether he is healthy enough to help Detroit return to the World Series after the Tigers made it there and lost in 2012.
“I’m feeling good. I’m feeling ready to go,” he said. “No time to think what happened in the past. We need to keep positive and try to be ready to play.”