Detroit – Two more outfielders went down, an inning apart. Another starting pitcher went down the previous day. The Tigers kept losing pieces, as the season teetered.
At some point, you have to forget what you’re missing and lean on what you have left. On Sunday, the Tigers offered a reminder of what they might have left. They have a rapidly rising star in lefty Tarik Skubal, who threw six scoreless innings and struck out 11 as the Tigers completed a sweep of the Orioles, 5-1.
And oh by the way, they have a legendary hitter doing more than taking obligatory final bows. Miguel Cabrera has provided something old, something familiar and something very much needed. You might have looked away after he crossed the 3,000-hit threshold, but that was your mistake. Don’t look now, Cabrera is the Tigers’ most-dangerous hitter again. In the past few days, the thump has returned, jump-starting a stalled-out offense. It’s not about milestones now, it’s about salvaging a season before it slips from sight.
If the Tigers are down to two or three dependable starting pitchers, and two or three dependable hitters, they’ll have to depend on them even more. Cabrera had two hits Sunday, including a home run (No. 505) and a sacrifice fly, and is 11-for-22 his last six games, pushing his average to .297. After the Tigers’ horrific effort against Oakland, losing four of five, they turned from scrap meat to scrappy and outscored the Orioles 12-3. Cabrera had six hits and two home runs in three games, again manning the middle of the lineup.
When you start a season 9-23 and players are dropping like pop flies, it’s not about loud pronouncements and sudden shifts. The Tigers (12-23) head on a nine-game trip to Tampa, Cleveland and Minnesota and certainly haven’t caught up to anybody. They have caught a breath, if not a break.
“Happy flights are better than brutal, sad ones,” AJ Hinch said. “We feel like we’re in a good place, we’re getting better. One step in front of the other.”
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Another impressive step by Skubal, 3-2 with a 2.50 ERA, in the midst of a 14-inning scoreless streak. He allowed three hits and two walks, mesmerizing the Orioles with his 97-mph fastball, inducing 21 swings and misses. Like several Tigers, Skubal was battling congestion with a mild (non-COVID) illness. So was Cabrera, who politely waved away reporters because he said he wasn’t feeling well.
Skubal’s voice was hoarse, but he knew it was important to be a horse on the mound, throwing 102 pitches.
“Wasn’t trying to put pressure on myself, just trying to do my job,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Even right now, I don’t feel great. You deal with it.”
Ah, story of the Tigers season so far. Sure, they were dealt a bad hand, injury-wise, but haven’t dealt with it very well. Of six guys in the rotation, the Tigers are down to two – Skubal and Eduardo Rodriguez. Michael Pineda left Saturday’s victory with a fractured finger and is out a while. Casey Mize’s elbow soreness persisted to the point his rehab assignment was halted. Tyler Alexander also is sidelined with elbow soreness. Matt Manning is rehabbing a shoulder injury and could be back soon.
Skubal, 25, has risen to the top of the Tigers’ pitching pyramid, and like most of the team’s starters, hasn’t been blessed with much run support. The Tigers entered Sunday with the fewest runs in the majors, the Orioles the third fewest. If the Tigers were going to get better anytime soon, it had to happen here.
Last season, they started 9-24, but this has been much more of a surprise and disappointment. They have time to get healthy, and in the meantime, they need all hands and all bats. The energy seemed to evaporate from the offense after Cabrera ended his march to 3,000 hits.
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It didn’t help that Austin Meadows has been sidelined with vertigo and was pulled after the first inning Sunday with dizziness and nausea. The next inning, Victor Reyes slammed a double and pulled up hobbling as he reached second base. He’d just returned from a rehab stint for a pulled left quad muscle. This time, it was the right quad, and he’s out again. The Tigers lost their most promising outfielder, rookie Riley Greene, late in spring training with a broken foot.
If not for solid efforts from a pieced-together bullpen, and quality starts from Skubal and Rodriguez, the Tigers would be in enormous trouble. As it stands, they’re in fairly standard trouble. They’re still waiting for Javier Baez, Jonathan Schoop and Jeimer Candelario to get hot, while receiving lifts from Willi Castro and Harold Castro.
And a significant lift from Cabrera, 39, trying to orchestrate one more resurrection in a storied career. He handled the milestone talk well, while insisting he just wanted to win games. In deeds more than words, he’s showing it. He’s driving the ball the opposite way and staying in the strike zone, perhaps trying to set a tone for the team’s free-swingers.
“It’s Miggy, he’s been doing this for 20 years,” Schoop said. “I don’t think we get surprised when he does it, he’s a Hall of Famer. Of course, if Miggy is being like that, it takes pressure off some hitters.”
It sounds plausible, although it’s not that simple. Cabrera leads by lightening the clubhouse mood, not by igniting it. He’s not much of a speech-maker. He counsels teammates when they ask. Generally, he assumes they learn by watching.
“It takes a lot more guys than one,” Hinch said. “But clearly Miggy’s been a spark, swinging the bat well, driving the ball. … I haven’t seen a big change in Miggy other than the hits. He’s a big presence in our room and in our lineup. But there’s no dramatic speech, not any sort of declaration.”
There is a settling factor when the Big Man is smacking the ball again. Who knows how sustainable it is at his age, but every bit (and hit) matters now. His 412-foot homer to left-center in the second inning made it 1-0. His sacrifice fly in the third made it 3-0, and the way Skubal was throwing, it became a relaxing afternoon at the ballpark. There haven’t been many of those so far. And when the Tigers return home May 26 against Cleveland, we’ll see if they actually sparked something here.
If fans were nudging toward apathy on this homestand, they stirred anew. Skubal showed how a dominating pitcher can control a game. Cabrera showed how a feared hitter can make those around him comfortable, and the opponent uncomfortable. The Tigers are still missing pieces and picking up pieces, but at least they’re digging deeper to dig their way out.
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