August 23rd, 2017
The thrill of victory, agony of defeat and
two superstars making it happen both ways
By KEITH GAVE
Bases loaded in a scoreless game, the big man up to bat. One of those moments we shell out mega bucks in season-ticket packages to experience. One of those moments once almost guaranteed to bring us to our feet, stomping and clapping and cheering and ordering another beer.
Miguel Cabrera against a journeyman left-hander from Korea, Hyun-Jin Ryu. Raw meat for one of the most feared hitters in baseball. But Ryu knew what he was doing. He pitched around the Tigers’ best hitter this season, walking Justin Upton to get to Cabrera.
An insult, to be sure, to the former MVP and Triple Crown winner. And how did Cabrera react? He struck out on three straight pitches.
Inning over. The best chance in the game to score a run for Michael Fulmer, over. Ryu and three other pitchers held Detroit to just three hits in route to a 3-0 victory – the ninth time the Tigers and their allegedly dangerous offense have been shut out this season.
Oh, and what proved to be the winning run scored on yet another fielding error by Nick Castellanos, a designated hitter masquerading as a third baseman for much of his career.
As it turned out, on consecutive days against the best team in baseball, we saw the very best – and worst – the Tigers have had to offer this season on consecutive days.
The best, of course, came a day later.
Justin Verlander’s dominating performance on Sunday – eight innings of the two-hit ball that included nine strikeouts in a 6-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers – was yet another reminder why the Tigers should just suck it up and pay him through his gilded contract. It had to be painful to watch for the Houston Astros and their fans, too, should their gutless general manager stand pat and not make a deal that would exponentially improve their chances to advance to the World Series. Their path, of course, goes through Los Angeles.
Meantime in Detroit, an overdue rebuilding process is under way, and it resonates around the core of the franchise. It’s two foundational players, Verlander and Cabrera, having many different seasons.
After struggling in the first half, Verlander has been brilliant. Since the All-Star break, he has flirted seriously twice with no-hit bids, overpowering hitters with more than just a fastball that was clocked at 96 mph in the first inning Sunday. He has pitched far better than his 9-8 record will attest. A lack of run support easily cost him 3-4 more wins this season.
Cabrera? A sadly different story, and an alarming one, too. His .259 average is nearly 60 points below his career average. Worse, he’s on pace to finish the season with just 18 home runs and 77 RBI, his lowest totals since he broke into baseball in his 87-game rookie season with the Florida Marlins. In his 14 MLB seasons heading into this campaign, Cabrera has averaged 32 home runs and 111 RBIs.
So what’s wrong? Obviously, he’s not right physically. Since hurting his back in the World Baseball Classic in March, he’s been pretty much a shadow of the player we had come to know and love and adore seeing at the plate with the bases drunk in a close game.
Apparently, though he's loathed to complain or even agree to any extended time off, Cabrera is suffering from nagging hip and lower left back problems that rob him of his power. Unable to turn on the ball as we’re used to seeing, he has hit just three of his 13 home runs to left field. On the rare occasion that he gets a pitch away that he can extend on, his power ally is in right center field, where he hit a ball on Sunday that drove in the last two runs in the win over the Dodgers.
Pure conjecture here, but I’m betting this is more than a physical ailment Cabrera is battling through. Look at him. He appears to be wasting away. And he admitted recently in an interview with The Sports Xchange that he has lost 25 pounds in recent weeks. He says his back is the reason, but maybe a mitigating issue is 2,300 miles to the south in his native Venezuela, where political turmoil has led to a lawless society that endangers his family.
On his Instagram account recently, Cabrera criticized the government’s corruption, expressed support of the protesters there and told of threats against his family that forces him to pay protection money.
“If I go to Venezuela, they'll break me, they'll kill me,” Cabrera wrote. "I'm tired of paying protection money so they don't kidnap my mother.”
So maybe we can just file this season as an anomaly for the big man, under the heading, as Verlander has suggested, of “We’re Not Robots.”
Maybe Cabrera’s body will end, his strength will return, and things will settle down at home in South America and he can enjoy peace of mind again. And we’ll see a return to prominence of one of the game’s best-ever hitters.
We can only hope, because, at 34, Cabrera has six years left on that $248 million contract he signed with Mike Ilitch on March 27, 2014. That means the Tigers owe him $184 million in the final six years of the deal.
Seems like a long time, eh? Well, consider this: If you’re lucky enough to be paid $1,000 a week, it would take you more than 19 years just to make $1 million. To make $184 million? You’re looking at nearly 3,500 years! That’s a long time.
And at the rate this rebuilding process is going, it feels like it’ll take that long for the Tigers to become relevant again.