DETROIT — At this point in his career, it should be almost impossible for Miguel Cabrera to surprise anyone.
He’s the reigning American League MVP and he just won baseball’s first triple crown since the Vietnam War. Pitchers are happy to walk him, even with Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez waiting to bat, and managers spend sleepless nights trying to decide when to make those walks intentional.
Given all of that, there are days when he still finds a way to impress the people that see him play every game. Sunday, he did it twice in two innings.
In the sixth, with the game tied at three, Cabrera led off the inning with a vicious line drive to left-centerfield. Justin Upton and Jordan Schafer barely had a chance to move before the ball cleared the fence on one hop, ending up near the flagpole that sits over 430 feet from home plate.
Cabrera ended up scoring the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly, but he was just getting warmed up.
One inning later, Cabrera came up with two on and two out. The Tigers had expanded their lead to 5-3 on Omar Infante’s homer, and Braves reliever Cory Gearrin was trying to keep Atlanta in the game. He missed with two sliders, then fell behind 3-0 when he couldn’t get his sinker over the plate.
Gearrin thought Cabrera would be taking on the 3-0 pitch, and fired a hard sinker on the outside corner.
Ten seconds later, both dugouts were wondering how exactly Cabrera had just launched another rocket — this time into the right-field stands for a three-run homer.
“There aren’t too many players in this game that can do that,” Jim Leyland said. “There might be some other guys who would swing there on 3-0, and be good enough hitters to take that pitch the other way. But they would get a single out of it. A couple might get a double. He hit it out.”
Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said the homer looked perfectly normal to him — if Cabrera hit from the other side of the plate.
“He hits the ball over the right-field fence like he’s a left-handed pull hitter,” Gonzalez said.
When Cabrera is hitting the ball like this, the accolades start to pile up. Leyland, who managed Barry Bonds, said that Cabrera has more opposite-field power than any hitter he’s ever seen. Victor Martinez, a four-time All-Star, said that his fellow Venezuelan is the best right-handed hitter in the game.
Even Gearrin, who had only faced Cabrera once in his short career — he allowed a single — could only shrug his shoulders.
“He did what he does,” he said.
Matt Tuiasosopo, though, is still impressed by the whole thing. He never played with anyone like Cabrera when he had a couple cups of coffee in Seattle, and he certainly never saw anything like him in his minor-league travels.
“He’s the best hitter I’ve ever seen,” Tuiasosopo said. “Ever since spring training, I’ve been watching him, even in batting practice. I even watch video on him, and we talk on the bench. He tells me how he attacks hitters, and I’m like a sponge — trying to learn as much as I can.”
“It’s just fun to play with him.”
Cabrera is only a month into his sixth season with the Tigers, but he’s charging up the franchise home-run list. He’s passed Charlie Gehringer and Alan Trammell this season, and he should be in the top 10 by the All-Star break. Of the players ahead of him on the list, none can match his .325 batting average, and only Hank Greenberg is ahead of him in on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
That makes him the second-best righthanded hitter in Tigers history, and he’s still finding new ways to impress the people around him.
“He’s the big guy,” Leyland said. “He’s awful good.”