DETROIT — Miguel Cabrera hadn’t spoken with the media since the All-Star break, but he talked to a small group of reporters after most of his Detroit Tigers teammates had filed out of the clubhouse following Sunday’s 8-1 loss to the Seattle Mariners.
He said the "negativity" in town was a reason for his month of silence, but the media’s desire for follow-up questions regarding his comments at the All-Star Game about offseason core muscle repair surgery holding back both himself and Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander also likely contributed to Cabrera’s stance.
Since the All-Star break, Detroit has seen its 6 1/2 game lead in the Central Division turn into a 1 1/2-game deficit while going 13-18. The Tigers have lost seven of 10 series during that time. A combination of a lack of timely hitting, poor defense, faulty relief pitching and all-around mental lapses have caused a World Series favorite to fall into the wild-card scramble.
"What we need to do is go out and play hard," Cabrera said. "I don’t think we play hard enough now."
Asked to clarify that comment, Cabrera said, "We play hard. But we have to play better. That is wrong, what I say."
Cabrera was asked what the biggest problem has been for the team.
"We’ve got to play better all-around," he said. "And if we want to win, we’ve got to stick together and play offense, defense and pitch together. I think we have a good chance."
The Tigers also need Cabrera to be the monster that he has been in winning three consecutive batting titles, two straight MVP awards and a Triple Crown two years ago.
He is batting .309 with 17 homers and 86 RBI — projecting to about 30 points off his usual batting average with only 23 homers and 114 RBI. Now, for 99 percent of hitters, those are great statistics. But Cabrera is in that other one percent, having hit 44 homers in each of the last two seasons and no fewer than 137 RBI.
And in the last three weeks, Cabrera has been downright anemic. Despite leading the majors with 40 doubles — the one stat that has picked up for him — he went from July 26 to Thursday with zero doubles. In fact, he had just one extra-base hit, a long homer, over that time period.
Worse yet, Cabrera has had only five RBI since July 26, a span of 22 games. And he’s batted only .278 in that time. He has four doubles in his last four games, but his gargantuan power remains AWOL.
That one homer Cabrera hit was a 445-foot shot into the second level of shrubs in center field. On Saturday, he drove a batting practice pitch to the same area while hitting the roof of the camera well in straight-away center with another B.P. blast.
So, I asked Cabrera why he hasn’t been able to translate the power that is seen before the game into his usual power during games.
"I have to find my swing and be consistent," Cabrera said. "I spread my strike zone to make something happen. I am trying to make something happen, and that is a big mistake. I have to shorten my strike zone and swing at strikes."
Cabrera was judged by major league managers in a recent Baseball America poll to have the second-best strike zone judgment in the AL after teammate Victor Martinez. Yet he has chased more balls well out of the strike zone in the last three weeks than he has in the last three years.
And he knows it.
Just like he knew a question was coming about that report during the All-Star week by Spanish-speaking USA Today reporter Jorge Ortiz that quoted Cabrera as saying the surgery was holding him and Verlander back.
"I don’t talk about injuries," Cabrera said. "I have got to be out there every day and play hard."
So, he wasn’t denying the injury. But he also made it clear that he did not want to use it as an alibi. Still, if he can still drive balls some 450 feet on occasions, his assessment about poor strike zone discipline is what hits the nail on the head.
He’s doing what left fielder J.D. Martinez said he and many of his teammates are doing: "Everyone’s pressing and trying to make it happen. We’ve just got to let it happen. What the pitcher gives us to hit, we have to hit hard. And if it is not a strike, we have to take it and take the walk."
Detroit leads the AL with a .274 batting average — a full 10 points higher than runner-up Kansas City. And yet the Tigers rank fourth in runs scored with 556.
"We have been leading the league in hitting," said catcher Alex Avila. "But there can’t be a panic. We just have to get those timely hits that you need."
That’s where Cabrera comes into play more than anyone else. He’s on pace to knock in 23 fewer runs than last year. If Cabrera becomes Cabrera again, the Tigers will take off. That is all but guaranteed.
The booing at home, where Detroit has not played well, has become an issue with the Tigers. Closer Joe Nathan fired off a chin flick at fans, and has apologized profusely ever since. Victor Martinez has questioned the fans, and Ian Kinsler referred to them as "a mob," while declining to comment extensively about them in an attempt to avoid controversy.
Cabrera on Sunday said, "They boo us. I don’t understand that…But if we win games, they are going to be OK. If we control that, the fans are going to be OK."
That is a realistic response from a superstar player struggling to regain his hitting discipline and his swagger. And if Cabrera finds those things, his team is going to be just fine.