Miguel Cabrera's chase of the Triple Crown—and Detroit's decision to allow him to continue chasing it—may prove to be the final nail in what could be a very disappointing season for the Tigers and their rabid fanbase.
Sure, the Tigers won five of their seven games last week and continued to fend off a charging Cleveland squad for the top spot in the AL Central. Given a cursory glance, you'd think that with a week left in the regular season, "everything's coming up Milhouse" for skipper Jim Leyland and his talented ballclub.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, that couldn't be further from the truth, as the most feared hitter on the planet, Miguel Cabrera, is hurting:
Leyland wasn't willing—or able—to offer a clue as to when Cabrera may have gotten injured or to remain optimistic about his superstar's prognosis going forward, as he told MLive.com's Chris Iott after the game: "I'm not exactly sure, but I don't think it's too good."
The skipper reiterated those thoughts to Shawn Windsor of the Detroit Free Press, saying: “He (Cabrera) was hurting. I’m a little concerned about it, to be honest with you.”
"A little concerned," Jim?
You get "a little concerned" if Andy Dirks tweaks a hamstring. You drop to your knees and pray to the baseball gods when injury befalls Cabrera—and beg for forgiveness if your decision to keep running him out there winds up costing the other players on the roster a chance at making a deep playoff run.
For this is just the latest in what has been an injury-filled month for the reigning AL MVP, who first went down during a game against Oakland back on August 29:
Injuries to a player's core, whether it be their abdomen or, more specifically, to their obliques, make it incredibly painful to swing a bat, run the bases and, in some cases, move at all. Those injuries don't heal overnight, either. Extended rest is the only way for that to happen.
For a player who generates as much torque and power with his swing as Cabrera does, those types of injuries can cripple him at the plate.
The proof is in the numbers, which for Cabrera in September, are far below the incredibly high level at which we've come to expect him to perform: A .264/.409/.340 slash line, two extra base hits (one home run) and six RBI over his last 16 games.
While he's walked a dozen times, helping to keep his on-base percentage above .400, it's an empty statistic, given his inability to drive the ball with conviction as he has for the better part of the past decade.
Now to be fair, we don't know exactly what part of his abdomen Cabrera injured back at the end of August. It could have been an oblique injury, it could have been a straight-up abdomen injury—or it could have been a groin injury that generated the most discomfort in his abdomen.
You don't need a medical degree to think that Cabrera has likely been compensating for his abdominal injury by altering his approach, both at the plate and in the field.
It's human nature to try and play through pain, and by doing that we open ourselves up to a higher risk of re-aggravating the old injury—or suffering a new one altogether.
Whether this groin injury is a new one, a continuation of the abdominal injury or a combination of the two, it begs the question: Would we even be having this discussion had Leyland and the Tigers medical staff shut Cabrera down until they were convinced that he was healthy enough to return?
Instead, the team relied on the system that, according to MLive.com's James Schmehl, Leyland has had in place for some time when it comes to his most important player:
After every pregame workout, Miguel Cabrera will poke his head inside Jim Leyland's office and give his manager a thumbs up or a thumbs down.
A thumbs up means he's good to go. A thumbs down and Cabrera gets a day off.
"If he gives me thumbs down, I don't play him because he knows how he feels," Leyland said.
The final decision as to whether Cabrera plays is ultimately left up to Leyland. Even if Cabrera gives him the green light, it's Leyland's call as to whether Cabrera will play.
Players like Cabrera rarely admit when they're hurting—and managers like Leyland know that.
Cabrera should have been shut down at the end of August and held out of action until such time that he could swing a bat and run the bases without pain. Would that have cost Detroit a chance at winning its third consecutive division title?
But by not making that decision, Cabrera's quest for the Triple Crown—and Detroit's eagerness to help him get there—the division crown may be the only thing that the Tigers get to celebrate in 2013.
And that's a shame, for this team—on paper at least—looks to be capable of so much more.