Miggy’s plate presence aging like fine wine

Detroit Tigers

DETROIT — Miguel Cabrera stepped to the plate with two on and two outs in the second inning Tuesday night against Guardians starter Cal Quantrill and did his trademark stare back to the field. Not long ago, this was one of the scariest situations a pitcher could face: An RBI situation against an All-Star capable of hitting the ball out to any part of a stadium, even at spacious Comerica Park.

The situation is still frightening for a pitcher nowadays, but for different reasons. Instead of a slugger staring down his opponent, Cabrera at age 39 is more like a chess player surveying his board. He checks the defense, searching for an opening the infield has left or a spot the outfield can’t reach, and goes to work.

“Miggy knows what his strengths are,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said after the Tigers’ 11-4 win. “He knows how to put together an at-bat.”

On a basic level, that seems obvious. Cabrera is in the 3,000-hit and 500-homer clubs for a reason. But with the spotlight of those milestones gone, his focus and competitiveness are just as strong. If anything, clearing the milestones has allowed Cabrera to simply concentrate on hitting again, and use his toolbox for whatever situation confronts him.

“He’s so intelligent, and he uses the whole field,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “He was a monster before. He’s played a lot of baseball, but he’s so intelligent that he’ll take a line drive to right field when you need him. It’s hard to combat that when you’ve got a guy who uses the whole field; we’ve seen it with us.”

Cabrera already knew how to torment Cal Quantrill; he went 3-for-6 off the Cleveland starter last season with a pair of opposite-field singles and a ground ball through the middle. Tuesday showed another year of age didn’t change the result.

In the first inning, Cabrera watched two sinkers down and in to get a 2-0 count, forcing Quantrill to come back up into the zone. When Quantrill tried to jam him, Cabrera flared it out to right field.

That seemed to be on Quantrill’s mind an inning later, when he tried to attack with cutters. Cabrera fouled off the first, then flared the second into nearly the same location as the other single. This time, he drove in a run and advanced another, part of a four-run inning that put the Tigers in front for good.

Quantrill changed course with two outs and the bases empty in the fourth, going to the outer half of the zone with a first-pitch sinker before getting Cabrera to swing at an offspeed pitch. Quantrill’s 0-2 cutter got enough of the plate for Cabrera to lace a ground ball to the right side. First baseman Owen Miller deflected it, but couldn’t make the play.

“You could see how frustrated Quantrill was getting,” Hinch said. “He tried to come in on him, he fights it away. He throws a breaking ball, he hits it that way. Hangs a breaking ball, [hits it] to right off the first baseman.”

It is not the Triple Crown material of years past, but it’s beautiful in its own way.

“I love hitting behind him. I love being in the on-deck circle, [watching] how they’re pitching him, what he’s trying to do,” said Eric Haase, whose ensuing two-run homer extended the lead. “I can kind of start thinking with him in the box a little bit. When he gets pitches in counts that he’s looking for, he just doesn’t miss them.

“Even at this age right now, just for him to be spraying missiles all over the place has been incredible. I’m glad that I’ve got a first-class seat to watch it.”

Cabrera finished with a three-hit game, all with two outs. None of the hits had a triple-digit exit velocity, but all of them had a .590 expected batting average or better. A sixth-inning walk and a seventh-inning substitution thwarted his chance at what would’ve been his first four-hit game at Comerica Park since 2016. It did nothing to dampen what Cabrera is doing.

“It’s incredible,” said Riley Greene, whose two doubles accounted for three RBIs. “Me and Tork were watching the scoreboard. It’s pretty cool being able to witness all that.”

Cabrera raised his average to .308, ninth-best among qualified American League hitters. It’s his highest average after July 4 in a season since 2016, when he batted .316 for the year. With runners in scoring position, he’s batting .382 (21-for-55). With runners in scoring position and two outs, he’s batting .455 (10-for-22).

As much as his aging knees could use the break, he’s building a case to be the Tigers’ All-Star later this month at Dodger Stadium. The way he’s hitting, it wouldn’t have to be a lifetime achievement award. It would be a recognition of what he’s doing right now, incredibly, at this stage of his career.

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