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Senior Baseball Columnist

Cabrera's historic season and gutsy play put him over the top for AL MVP

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Miguel Cabrera switched positions this season to allow the Tigers to add Prince Fielder. (US Presswire)  
Miguel Cabrera switched positions this season to allow the Tigers to add Prince Fielder. (US Presswire)  

DETROIT -- The Triple Crown is out there, tantalizingly, the AL MVP too, a couple of pieces of ripened fruit just begging to be plucked from the branch.

And here is the truly amazing thing about Miguel Cabrera's sock-it-to-me September: For much of the month, following an ankle sprain in late August, he has practically been swinging on one foot.

"It's helped me stay more focused," Cabrera said Wednesday afternoon, hours after bludgeoning the Athletics in Tuesday night's series opener for two homers, six RBI and moving into the AL lead in batting average (.333), RBI (129) and into a tie for second in homers (40, behind Josh Hamilton's 42). "It's crazy, man.

"But it's getting better."

At this point, with these numbers, Cabrera needs more focus like a wasp needs a sharper stinger.

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He is the game's best hitter right now, hands down, taking into account both power and average. He is more versatile, hits the ball harder the opposite way and has fewer holes than anybody else.

With every swing, swat and crack, Cabrera is keeping his Tigers in this thing. At a time of year when emotions swing high and low, Wednesday was a high: The Tigers whipped Oakland 6-2, gaining a game on the White Sox. Grand total of 14 left, and Detroit pulled to within two of Chicago.

The Tigers are scrambling, with so much on the line: Spinning the millions spent by owner Mike Ilitch into the World Series trophy he so badly wants to win ... quite possibly, manager Jim Leyland's future with the club ... Cabrera becoming baseball's first Triple Crown winner since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 ... Cabrera winning his first MVP award, and the Tigers' second in two years (Justin Verlander won in 2011).

As his team works to keep the first breaths of winter chill at arm's length, what Cabrera is doing this month is absolutely insane.

Into Wednesday, he was batting .373 in September with four doubles, seven homers, 20 RBI and a 1.223 OPS (.426 on-base percentage, .797 slugging percentage). Via his RBI and runs scored, Cabrera was responsible for 38.6 percent of the Tigers' runs this month.

Now, look at those numbers. And look at the grande-sized bag of ice that has been affixed to his right ankle for much of the month.

It is his back foot when he bats. The foot he plants in the box, and then pushes off of during the transference of weight as his swing moves from beginning to end.

Here is what he told me when we were in Chicago last week: "It's hard to put a lot of weight on it. I'm hitting off balance right now."

And by favoring the foot, Cabrera said, his Achilles tendon has started to ache.

"Just go play, man," he said. "I don't want to talk about the ankle. I just want to help my team win.

"If it really, really was hurt, they wouldn't let me play. They always ask how I'm feeling, do I need a day to DH?"

And he always waves them off. He has played third base every day since last slotting in as DH, back on Aug. 25, two days after the initial injury.

"I don't like to talk about it because it's a distraction," Cabrera said. "Hang in there and try to play. I'm not going to give an excuse or anything.

"I want to go play."

Where do you factor this into the MVP debate?

And how much weight do you attach to it?

During a time when the Angels' Mike Trout has slowed some, and when Texas' Hamilton pulled out of a key game with the Angels Tuesday after three innings with a "sinus condition" ... not only do Cabrera's numbers speak for themselves, but so does his maniacal desire to stay on the field.

Past Triple Crown Winners
PlayerYear/LGBAHRRBI
Carl Yastrzemski, BOS1967/AL.32644121
Frank Robinson, BAL1966/AL.31649122
Mickey Mantle, NYY1956/AL.35352130
Ted Williams, BOS1947/AL.34332114
Ted Williams, BOS1942/AL.35636137
Joe Medwick, STL1937/NL.37431154
Lou Gehrig, NYY1934/AL.36349165
Jimmie Foxx, PHA1933/AL.35648163
Chuck Klein, PHI1933/NL.36828120
Roger Hornsby, STL1925/NL.40339143
Roger Hornsby, STL1922/NL.40142152
Ty Cobb, DET1909/AL.3779107
Nap Lajoie, PHA1901/AL.42614125
Tip O'Neill, STL1887/AA.43514123
Paul Hines, PRO1878/NL.358450

Back in Detroit, the Athletics this week are doing everything but issuing an APB for Cabrera to their pitchers as they push to hang onto an AL wild-card berth.

How do you get this guy out right now?

Who knows?

"I'd like to say pitch him down and away," perplexed A's manager Bob Melvin said. "But when you pitch him down and away, it's a double to right-center. When he's going good. ..."

One scout who has been following the Tigers this month says that when Cabrera hits a ball the opposite way into right field, "it's like the ball was hit by a left-hander, it's hit so hard."

"It's ridiculous," Oakland first-base coach Ty Waller moaned.

Waller vividly remembers encountering Cabrera at Double-A Carolina in 2003, just before he was summoned by the Marlins and helped them to a World Series title.

"He was on his way to the Triple Crown that year [in the Carolina League]," Waller said.

Nine years later, another of his Triple Crown runs will not be interrupted. Because though he may well deserve it the way he's going right now, there is no higher league to which he can be promoted.

At his current pace, he will finish this season batting .333 with 44 homers, 142 RBI and 208 hits. Research by the Tigers shows the last player to reach those four levels in a season was Joe DiMaggio in 1937. Further, those numbers have been reached only six times in major-league history: DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig (1927, 1931, 1934), Jimmie Foxx (1932) and Hack Wilson (1930).

Hall of Famer Al Kaline, a special assistant to Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, calls Cabrera the best hitter he has seen come through Detroit since his own arrival in 1953.

The one knock on him this summer, and yes, it is a significant knock, is that he isn't exactly playing third base with grace and aplomb. This is an area in which there is an obvious difference in the MVP evaluations. Trout is flat-out great in center field. Cabrera? Um, not so much.

But here again, all he wants to do is play.

When the Marlins signed shortstop Jose Reyes last year, Hanley Ramirez's reluctant move to third base was more soapy than an episode of Desperate Housewives.

When the Tigers signed first baseman Prince Fielder, Cabrera, all 6-feet-4 and 240 pounds of him, shifted to third without a peep.

"I'm getting better," Cabrera said with a smile. "I have to keep it simple.

"I know if I keep working hard, I'll be all right at third base. It's OK so far."

While it's not always pretty there -- but not as bad as some make it out to be -- Cabrera blasts more baseballs into orbit. Even with the Athletics on high alert Wednesday, he pummeled a Jim Miller fastball in the seventh inning for his 41st home run, increasing Detroit's lead to 5-0 and pulling him to within one homer of Hamilton's AL-leading 42.

No small part of the trade-off of him surrendering first base to Fielder is Detroit's Prince batting behind Cabrera in the lineup. Both Leyland and Melvin talked Wednesday about how much of an impact that has. Pitchers simply can't avoid Cabrera with Fielder up next and, usually, Miggy feasts.

Especially in this Ironman-strong finish.

"It's awesome," Cabrera said.

So, too, is this sprint to the end.

"The Triple Crown would be amazing, man," said Cabrera, who also finished Wednesday at an AL-leading .333 average and 130 RBI. "But you have to get lucky. You're competing with a lot of guys."

In one sense, he's right. Because you rarely win a batting title without a few infield hits and bunt singles mixed in, and if you've seen Cabrera run, you know he is to infield hits what a rhinoceros is to ballet.

But here he is anyway, in prime position.

"This is special," he said, noting that if he could pick from any of the above, he would choose the playoffs over the MVP or Triple Crown.

"Because," he said playfully, grinning, "if you go to the playoffs, you know those other things are going to be there."

Leyland says he will be "shocked" if Cabrera does not win the MVP award. One rival coach compares Cabrera right now with Barry Bonds at his peak.

Throaty chants of "MVP! MVP!" greeted Cabrera as he stepped in to bat in the ninth inning Wednesday.

Right now, it is difficult to argue.

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