NEW YORK -- For everything that's been written about Miguel Cabrera through the years -- from his off-field alcohol problems to his weight issues to his craftsmanship in the batter's box -- no one can ever knock the guy for his clock-punching skills. Since 2004, when Cabrera was just a pup with the Florida Marlins, he has appeared in 1,264 regular-season games. Only Ichiro Suzuki, with 1,276 games played, has been a more reliable presence on a lineup card in that stretch.
Cabrera's durability and day-in, day-out production have helped him build a reputation as one of the elite hitters in the majors. Do it in October, and a reputation turns into a legacy.
With Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander in the mix for a rare Cy Young Award-MVP double and Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano basking in postseason love from the media (not to mention Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who calls him "one of the five best players in the game''), it's easy to lose track of Cabrera -- those 270 pounds notwithstanding. But he's proven he's capable of carrying the Tigers for extended stretches from April through September. So why shouldn't he do it for a while longer in October?
The very best of Miguel Cabrera was on display in Detroit's 5-3 victory over the Yankees in Game 2 of the American League Division Series on Sunday. He hit a two-run, opposite-field homer off Freddy Garcia in the first inning to give Detroit starter Max Scherzer a chance to take a breath, and looped an RBI single to center in the sixth, and the Tigers survived a wet-and-wild ninth inning to draw even in the best-of-five series. Now they go home to Comerica Park for Game 3 on Monday, with Verlander and CC Sabathia set to square off in the series-opening matchup that never quite happened.
His teammates, who watch him every day, talk about Cabrera's hand-eye coordination and computer-like knack for hitting with a sense of reverence. So you can only imagine how daunting it must be for opposing pitchers to face him.
"Nothing that he does surprises me anymore,'' Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge said. "When the game is on the line and something needs to be done, he's going to be there every single time. That's what amazes me the most.''
After three days in the Bronx, this series is building a nice little head of steam. The Yankees asserted themselves with a 9-3 victory Saturday, and the Tigers bounced back Sunday behind the excellent pitching of Scherzer -- but not without letting 50,596 fans see them sweat. The Tigers carried a 5-1 lead into the ninth, only to cringe in the dugout as Jose Valverde nearly coughed it up with some extraordinarily shaky closer work.
New York's comeback attempt featured a solo homer from Nick Swisher and a rare triple by Jorge Posada, and the weirdness peaked when Tigers catcher Alex Avila slipped and fell in the on-deck circle while camped under what should have been a game-ending foul pop by Curtis Granderson. The Tigers couldn't exhale until Valverde retired Cano, the potential winning run, on an infield grounder.
On this night, at least, Detroit's signature hitter, Cabrera, had the edge over New York's best guy.
The two games in New York marked Cabrera's first appearance in postseason play since 2003, when he hit a World Series homer off Roger Clemens at the tender age of 20, and he's acting like a guy who's basking in the experience. He's been friendly and accommodating to the media, and he engaged Cano, Derek Jeter, Granderson and other Yankees in conversation all weekend when they reached first base. He's acting like a Venezuelan Sean Casey.
"When you have a chance to chat with great players like that, you have to enjoy it,'' Cabrera said. "You have to focus on the game, too, but you have to enjoy it and relax. Get the pressure away and try to do your job.''
Heaven knows, there were times this year when the ballpark must have felt like a refuge for Cabrera. He generated headlines in spring training with a DUI arrest in Florida, and the ugly aftermath made lots of baseball people wonder precisely where his career was headed. In hindsight, Tigers GM David Dombrowski said it took a collaborative effort from Cabrera, his agents, the Tigers organization, Major League Baseball and the players association for Cabrera to move forward.
"It was a very unfortunate incident,'' Dombrowski said Sunday. "But we had a lot of people involved, and I had no doubt that Miggy was committed to try to make it work.''
Cabrera may or may not still be a work in progress off the field, but he has a flair for authoring happy endings in the batter's box:
• This year he joined Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Norm Cash and Rocky Colavito as the fifth player in Tigers history to collect 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 100 walks in a season.
• Cabrera and Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira extended their streaks of 100-RBI seasons to eight in a row -- best among active players.
• Cabrera led the AL with 48 doubles and ranked second in the majors with a .388 batting average with runners in scoring position. The only hitter better than Cabrera? Teammate Victor Martinez, who batted .394 in those situations. Martinez bats directly behind Cabrera in the fifth spot in the Detroit order, which makes the middle of Detroit's lineup a nightmare to navigate.
The best players play the best in bright lights. That's the bottom line. He's done it for years.
”-- Alex Avila on Miguel Cabrera
In light of Cabrera's overwhelming numbers, including a 7.3 wins above replacement, it seems a bit puzzling that he's rarely mentioned as a prime contender in the American League MVP race. Cabrera hit .429 with six homers and 21 RBIs in September, so a lot of other names had already made the rounds when he began strengthening his case.
"He was having a good year,'' Dombrowski said. "But a good year turned into a really tremendous year.''
Cabrera's year got a little more tremendous in the span of a few innings Sunday. Garcia pitched well for the Yankees, but there's only so much a man can do against a hitter with such a diverse skill set. In the first inning, Garcia caught too much of the plate with a 82-mph slider, and Cabrera hit a tracer into the right-field seats to give Detroit a 2-0 lead. In the sixth, Garcia opted for the splitter, and Cabrera dumped it into center for an RBI single. All the while, his teammates sat in the dugout and collectively said, "What else is new?''
"The best players play the best in bright lights,'' Avila said. "That's the bottom line. He's done it for years."
His extracurricular baggage notwithstanding, Cabrera is giving the Tigers little reason to regret signing him to an eight-year, $152.3 million deal that runs through 2015. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Cabrera's closest statistical comparables through age 27 were Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey Jr.
"Not to take anything away from guys in the past for the Tigers, because I have more respect for them than anyone,'' Inge said. "But you can make a case, if he finishes out his contract and keeps hitting like this, that he's the best Tiger ever. Heck, he might be now.''
That seems like hyperbole, when you consider that the Tigers' illustrious history includes such icons as Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, Greenberg and Gehringer. Then you watch Miguel Cabrera hit, and consider that he's only 28 years old. And suddenly the notion doesn't seem so far-fetched anymore.
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.