Commentary

Miguel Cabrera returning to form?

Power sapped by injuries, Tigers slugger showing encouraging signs at plate

Updated: October 12, 2013, 12:09 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Yes, the Tigers had Justin Verlander on the mound for Game 5, a pitcher who so thoroughly owns the Athletics, general manager Billy Beane probably should go to him for money when there is an available free agent or a sewage issue at the Coliseum.

But one of the most encouraging signs for Detroit on Thursday was during batting practice when Miguel Cabrera launched a home run above the high and distant window level at the Coliseum. An even better sign was when Cabrera homered in the fourth inning. That home run was his first since Sept. 17, his second since Aug. 26 and just his third extra-base hit in his previous 100 at-bats.

So forget Detroit's enormous starting depth with Verlander, likely Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and ERA leader Anibal Sanchez. The Tigers' fortunes against the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series also rest on whether their probable two-time MVP is healthy again and ready to resume his slugging ways. But just how are Cabrera's lingering groin, hip flexor and abdominal strain injuries? It depends on when you ask the question.

"

If you watch closely, you'll see that his power is coming back. He's getting better.

" -- Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski

"Right now, he's doing better," general manager and president Dave Dombrowski said after Thursday's series-clinching victory. "But if he does something with an off-balance throw or something, he tweaks it. If you've ever hurt a groin, you know how you'll be feeling OK and then you'll be jogging and you'll twist something and all of a sudden -- oohhhhh!

"And that's how his situation is. It's probably a little more severe situation because he hasn't really sat down [to rest it]. But that's why you'll see him and think he's great, he's doing good and then all of a sudden -- oooohhmph! But then the next day he feels a little better again."

As Dombrowski said, Cabrera did not rest his injuries much down the stretch. He missed only five games after the injuries mounted in late August and only two games after Sept. 6. The Tigers had a fairly comfortable lead in the AL Central at that point, so he probably should have taken more time off to make sure he was as healthy as possible for the postseason.

But that's not the approach Cabrera takes. If he's physically capable of playing, he wants to play. Especially in October.

"I mean, we're here in the playoffs, man," Cabrera said after Game 5. "I said before, everybody talks about what's going on with me. Everybody can talk what they can talk. I want to do my job, man. I want to be with the team. I want to play with my heart."

It's playing with the injuries that is more of an issue. Once they piled up, Cabrera went from a .359 average with 43 home runs, 130 RBIs, a .688 slugging percentage and a 1.137 OPS on Aug. 26 to a .284 average, a .333 slugging percentage and a .729 OPS the rest of the way.

As Cabrera struggled down the stretch, so did the Tigers. Only Boston scored more runs this season than the Tigers, but Detroit has been shut out five times since the start of September and held to one run another five times. The Tigers have been held to three runs or fewer in all but two of their past 12 games. Which is why they are crossing their fingers that Thursday's home run signaled that Cabrera is close to his old form.

"If you watch closely, you'll see that his power is coming back. He's getting better," Dombrowski said. "When you watch him out there and take batting practice like [Thursday at Oakland], and he hit one above the windows. And two weeks ago, he didn't hit like that. You see it's coming back, gradually, which people said it would. Every so often, unfortunately, he does something at an awkward angle and you can tell he tweaks it. But he's getting better."

And for the Tigers to advance to the World Series for the second year in a row, they'll need him to stay that way. Either that, or that great starting rotation is going to have little margin for error against the league's best offense.

"We in a good position," Cabrera said. "We got to come through like a team together and we go out there on fire. And it's like a puzzle. You never know when it's going to be your last. And you got to go out there and fight to win."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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