DETROIT — Miguel Cabrera rounded second base and shrugged his shoulders as he looked into the Tigers’ dugout on his way to third. After two-plus months, 51 games and 204 plate appearances since his last home run, he wasn’t expecting his drive to clear the left-field fence, either.
“I’m tired,” Cabrera joked after the game. “First time I’ve run around the bases in years.”
Said manager A.J. Hinch: “You see his reaction coming around third, playing with the dugout. Vintage Miggy.”
Cabrera’s 506th career home run was a microcosm of the Tigers’ Monday night at Comerica Park. Detroit was well on its way to a 12-4 win over the Padres when Cabrera homered, but it was a punctuation mark on an offensive outburst nobody saw coming.
A Tigers offense that entered Monday with 54 home runs, 20 fewer than any other Major League team, hit a season-high four off a Padres pitching staff that had allowed the sixth-fewest homers in the Majors entering the game. Eric Haase’s second career grand slam powered a five-run third inning off Sean Manaea that matched Detroit’s scoring over its previous three games combined.
“I was pretty ecstatic with a double, honestly,” said Haase, whose opposite-field drive bounced off the railing above the right-field fence in a way that made both Haase and umpires initially think it hit the wall until a replay review showed otherwise.
Jeimer Candelario, who was out of the starting lineup in three of Detroit’s previous six games and answering questions about his offensive slump carrying over to his defense, homered twice.
“That’s what happens when you keep working hard,” Candelario said. “Be consistent, work hard, stay positive and things can change like that.”
Whether this is a major change in the season, for individuals or for the team, is obviously another issue. The Tigers have had games like this against good and bad teams alike, only to struggle to carry it forward into the kind of extended success that turned around last season.
Still, this was a glimpse of the Tigers’ offense when several hitters get going. It also helps in a few decisions looming:
What is Haase’s role?
Haase has been an offensive catalyst all summer, now batting .309 (30-for-97) with six homers and 20 RBIs since June 1. While he has slugged his way into a timeshare at catcher, he has batted fourth or fifth in the lineup in all but one of his starts since June 29.
“One of the issues we’ve had in the lineup when we haven’t had guys going is that 3-4-5-6 [stretch],” Hinch said. “There’s where I put [Javier Báez], where am I going to put Miggy, and then there’s that hole. Harold [Castro] has done a nice job filling in, and when there’s a lefty in there, I can slide Haase in there.
“We kind of love the energy that Haase brings in his at-bats, and then when the production comes with it, we’re a different team.”
Haase began the season as a backup catcher and part-time left fielder. When rosters shrank and third catcher Dustin Garneau was designated for assignment, Haase became more of a bench player. His summer success has renewed the question of his role.
“Just fighting for at-bats, however they come,” Haase said. “That’s kind of been my M.O. in the big leagues.”
Young outfielders Riley Greene, Akil Baddoo and Austin Meadows are all left-handed hitters. If Detroit builds around that group, it will need a right-handed hitter to mix in. Reshaping Haase’s role is a way to get there.
Can the Candy Man stick?
Candelario came to Spring Training as a candidate for a contract extension, having led the league in doubles and the Tigers in OPS last year, but his struggles have put his future in question with one more season of arbitration eligibility left.
“I think one thing leads to another, especially with Jeimer, who’s an emotional player,” Hinch said. “When you start feeling pretty good about yourself, you get a little bit more aggressive, and the night continued for him. I was really happy he got the third hit, too.”
The Tigers don’t have a third baseman on the horizon in their system, though they could patch together a platoon until a prospect like Ryan Kreidler, Colt Keith or top Draft pick Jace Jung is ready.
Candelario, always vying to keep a positive mindset, has tried to keep the focus off his own situation and onto that of the team.
“It’s always important to contribute to the team,” he said. “Right now, I’m just concentrating on winning games. If we win games, it’s going to be all right.”
Cabrera has been one of the most productive hitters on the team, but has done so largely with line-drive singles and doubles. His home run drought was more the result of approach than a slump. His 39-year-old legs make it tough to produce the strength he needs for home runs, but his bat speed can still slash the gaps. In a more productive lineup, he might not be batting in the same spot, but he’d have an important role regardless as the heart of this team.
“I think the pull-side homer fires everybody up with him,” Hinch said, “especially when he’s a little beat up. He won’t tell you, but I don’t think he’s feeling great physically all the time. But him getting in on the fun was really key.