Niyo: Tigers slow-rolling Miguel Cabrera’s race against time

Detroit News

Detroit — Miguel Cabrera isn’t winning many footraces these days.

But this one looked like a dead heat, which made it worth watching, at least.

With two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the second inning Wednesday afternoon, Cabrera stepped into the batter’s box for his 2,001st career game in a Tigers uniform. The 40-year-old future Hall of Famer took a called strike on the first pitch he saw from the Pirates’ Rich Hill, a 43-year-old lefty who just so happens to be the oldest active player in Major League Baseball.

He also happens to have a history with Cabrera that predates the iPhone, or YouTube, for that matter, though you can use either of those now to find the video clip of a lithe, 22-year-old Cabrera sending one of Hill’s pitches into the Wrigley Field ivy back in 2005. That double was the first hit Hill allowed in a remarkable career that spans nearly two decades and more than 1,300 innings pitched for 12 different major-league teams.

But this? On a day where Hill would only allow one weak infield hit in six shutout innings against the flummoxed Tigers, this was just one more fun footnote. Cabrera slapped Hill’s next offering toward the hole between first and second base, only to see the Pirates’ Carlos Santana making a diving stop, rise to one knee and then toss the baseball to Hill charging toward first base. So was Cabrera, churning his legs as fast as they’d go at this stage of his career. (Statcast clocked him at a season-high 25.3 feet per second, well ahead of Hill but still well below league average, in case you’re wondering.)

Still, it was Hill’s foot that touched the bag first barely and the two shared a laugh when the sprint was over along with the inning.

“It was fun,” Hill smiled afterward, “but I have to get over a little quicker next time.”

Tigers manager AJ Hinch even managed a smile later, too, despite getting ejected from the game in the fourth inning by a hair-triggered home-plate umpire in Nic Lentz. And after Hinch’s team had followed up a 4-0 shutout win Tuesday night with an 8-0 shutout loss Wednesday in front of a crowd of 14,542 at Comerica Park.

“I guess you don’t see 40-plus-year-olds race on a Major League field very often,” Hinch said afterward. “So capture that in your memory bank.”

Diminished production

Of course, that’s part of the problem here. Not so much that Cabrera’s best days are a distant memory now, a decade removed from his reign as the American League MVP and several years beyond the time when he was a hitter capable of doing serious damage in the middle of the Tigers’ order. No, it’s that the highlights feel like happy accidents anymore. And for all the laughs Cabrera still brings to the ballpark “Honestly, he has been the most fun teammate I’ve ever played with,” gushed new Tigers starter Michael Lorenzen during Wednesday’s TV broadcast it’s obvious this race against time isn’t going to end the way anyone wants.

After Wednesday’s 0-for-3 day, Cabrera is now hitting a paltry .182 this season, with more strikeouts (18) than hits (14) in a diminishing role as a designated hitter. He has played in just 22 of the first 41 games, and with 77 at-bats total, he’s on pace for barely 300 in his final season. And that’s assuming Hinch can afford to keep putting him in the lineup, which is a question the Tigers’ manager has fielded more than once this spring.

“I mean, I think about it every series, because I want to keep him a part of this and he wants to be a part of it,” Hinch said, before noting Cabrera was on base twice with a single and a walk in Tuesday’s win and then got to play a rare day game after a night game Wednesday.

That’s because the Tigers were facing a left-handed pitcher, and one that Cabrera has had success against in the past: He was 8-for-19 with a home run in 19 plate appearances against Hill prior to Wednesday’s game.

“It is nice when he can contribute,” Hinch said. “And he gets to play back-to-back days, which any player will tell you gets his rhythm and timing a little bit better. Because I feel for him. At the same time that he’s getting older and not quite the same hitter as he was in his prime, I’m asking him to play less and creating more timing issues for him by playing once a series.”

Or even less than that, at times. Cabrera likely won’t play again until Saturday when the Tigers face another lefty in the Nationals’ Patrick Corbin. Then there might be another “natural start” against a lefty fill-in starter in Kansas City the following series. But beyond that, and the occasional pinch-hitting situation, it’s getting hard to find reasons to pencil him into the lineup. Same goes for Jonathan Schoop, the second baseman who’s hitting .206 with no power whatsoever. (He and Cabrera have six extra-base hits between them in 140 at-bats this season.)

“We’ll see,” Hinch said when asked about Cabrera’s role. “I mean, obviously, it depends on the performance of other people as well, and guys are pushing to play a little bit more. Andy Ibanez came up. I didn’t intend to play him every game. I intended to play him a lot, but he’s hit his way to everyday at-bats. (Zach) McKinstry has done the same thing. I want to keep Shorty (Zach Short) in the mix because of what he offers on defense. That cuts into Schoop, it cuts into Miggy. … The extra games are gonna have to be earned, just like anybody else.”

No packing it in

Of course, if Cabrera were anybody else somebody without milestone markers in left field counting his home runs (507) and hits (3,102) he probably wouldn’t still be on the roster. But his decision to play out the final $32 million year of his contract was publicly endorsed by ownership and new team president Scott Harris last fall. So this farewell tour will continue as planned.

And to be fair, it’s not like this part-time version of Cabrera is keeping the next one out of the lineup here in Detroit. Fans may be clamoring for a promotion for Justyn-Henry Malloy and his .957 OPS from Toledo, but the Tigers’ brass isn’t. Not yet, anyway.

Nor does Cabrera seem like he’s ready to pack it in. He still bounces around the clubhouse enjoying his teammates, and he’s still out there taking extra batting practice hours before games on the road. He still draws the loudest cheers from fans when he steps to the plate here in Detroit, and he still plays to rave reviews from opponents.

“He’s going to go down as one of the best players in the history of this game,” Hill said. “Just facing him over the years, I feel grateful to be on the same playing field as a guy like that.”

And grateful, too, the race ended the way it did on this day. As Hinch noted, “I just didn’t want anybody to get hurt.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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