MINNEAPOLIS — Ever a student of the game, Twins left-hander Scott Diamond remembers the first time he faced Miguel Cabrera.
It was back on Aug. 26, 2011. Diamond was making the second major league start of his young career against Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers. In the top of the second inning, Cabrera picked up a hit that snuck through the hole between shortstop and third base. One inning later, Cabrera singled to left off Diamond to start the game 2-for-2 against the rookie.
Cabrera wasn’t finished with Diamond. He doubled to center field to lead off the top of the sixth inning to improve to 3-for-3 on the night against Diamond. Minnesota’s starter never got a fourth chance at the Tigers slugger, as Diamond was lifted in the seventh before Cabrera came to the plate again.
It was a “welcome to the big leagues” moment for Diamond, who earned the loss. It was also the left-hander’s introduction to arguably the best hitter in baseball.
“I thought I made some decent pitches,” Diamond recalls. “Sure enough, that was when I learned that even when I’m ahead, it doesn’t feel like I am.”
Detroit comes to Minnesota this weekend in first place in the American League Central by a comfortable 4.5 games. Cabrera has had as much to do with the Tigers’ success as any other hitter. One year removed from winning the Triple Crown (as league leader in batting average, home runs and RBI), Cabrera is making a case to possibly win it again. Through Thursday, Cabrera leads in two of the three categories: his .358 average is 20 points better than the next batter, while his 69 RBI are easily the most in the AL by 13. He trails Chris Davis’ 21 home runs, however, by three.
As division rivals, the Twins are hardly strangers to Cabrera’s ability as a hitter. They’ve learned the hard way that he’s as dangerous a bat as there is in the game today.
“That’s kind of what you expect from him,” said reliever Brian Duensing, who has faced Cabrera 36 times, more than any other Twins pitcher. “He’s a really good hitter. He’s a strong guy. Even if you fool him, he’s still got a chance of hitting the ball hard, if not out of the ballpark. That’s kind of what you expect from that guy. I feel like he’s proven it enough to expect it from him.”
Cabrera has taken Duensing deep twice in those 36 plate appearances and holds a .258 average against Minnesota’s lefty. The starter-turned-reliever has struck out Cabrera seven times and issued five walks.
Even after 36 meetings between the two, Cabrera still proves to be a tough out for Duensing, who says the key to facing Cabrera is to keep him guessing.
“Try and mix up your patterns, really,” he said. “Try and stay away from getting predictable. Just try and somehow keep him uncomfortable and keep his feet moving.”
Of course, Cabrera isn’t the only threat in the Tigers’ lineup. Detroit’s offense leads all of baseball in batting average (.281), is second in on-base percentage (.349) and fifth in both slugging percentage (.428) and runs scored (324). Cabrera leads the Tigers in all major offensive categories, but he has plenty of help from the likes of Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez and former Twins outfielder Torii Hunter.
With such a deep lineup, Minnesota’s pitchers know it’s important to limit Cabrera’s damage.
“They’ve got guys up and down their lineup that can hit home runs and beat you on any given day,” said right-hander P.J. Walters, who will face the Tigers in Sunday’s series finale. “The big thing is obviously keep the guys in front of him and behind him off base. With a lineup like that, it’s not always the easiest thing to do. He’s a hitter. He’s not hitting 1.000. He’s going to get outs. My job is to execute the pitches and keep him off balance the best I can there.”
Cabrera has already faced the Twins more times this year (10) than any other team. In those 10 games, he’s batting .306 (11-for-36) with two homers and 12 RBI. He’s struck out six times and drawn six walks.
There’s certainly a lot of baseball to be played the rest of the season; for the Tigers, 98 games remain on the schedule. But through the first two and a half months of the season, Cabrera is looking once again like the Triple Crown may be within his reach.
The Twins’ pitchers are hoping they don’t help him get to that milestone.
“Even as competitive as we all are, for him to be able to accomplish that, it just speaks volumes to his ability, really,” said Diamond, who starts in Friday’s series opener. “To be that consistent for that long for two years in a row is unbelievable. There’s a lot of MVP guys, but to be able to do that, it’s never been done before so it just speaks in terms of the history of the game and where he stands.”