By PAT BORZI – DETROIT — In the 1950s and ’60s, before divisional play, the designated hitter and drug testing, the presence of a triple crown winner on your team meant a trip to the World Series.
The last three triple crown winners before Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera all played championship baseball in the October after their remarkable regular seasons: Carl Yastrzemski, whose 1967 Red Sox lost to St. Louis in seven games; Frank Robinson of the 1966 Orioles, which swept a Los Angeles Dodgers team with the future Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale; and Mickey Mantle, whose three home runs helped the 1956 Yankees topple the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games.
Of course, that was back when the road to the World Series was less complicated — league champions only. Still, as Cabrera and his Detroit Tigers teammates took batting practice under overcast skies at Comerica Park on Friday afternoon, the expectation of the American League division series that begins here Saturday against Oakland matched the crispness of the blustery fall air.
Cabrera could not be more relaxed. He took his swings in a dark blue Tigers hoodie and no cap, laughing and chatting up teammates and Tigers broadcasters between turns in the cage. He said he had received about 150 congratulatory text messages and voice mail messages from a range of admirers, from his fellow triple crown winners Robinson and Yastrzemski to the Miami Heat’s LeBron James to the Detroit Lions’ Ndamukong Suh.
“It kind of surprised me,” Cabrera said.
It should not have. Cabrera’s pursuit, immersed in the pressure of a pennant race, galvanized baseball, and he navigated the tension and attention with the joy of a 15-year-old. Cabrera hit 10 home runs and drove in a league-leading 27 runs in September as the Tigers overtook the free-falling Chicago White Sox in the American League Central. Then, on Oct. 1, he added four hits and his 44th home run in Detroit’s 6-3 clinching victory in Kansas City.
“On an almost nightly basis, he does something that makes his peers go, ‘Wow,’ ” said Justin Verlander, Detroit’s Game 1 starter. “And that’s not easy to do. You have a bunch of guys who have been here a long time, and you have them kind of shaking their heads going, ‘How did he do that?’ That’s pretty special.”
In back-to-back games here against Oakland in mid-September, Cabrera had two homers (one a grand slam) and a career high-tying six R.B.I. the first night, and a tape-measure homer the next. Detroit took off from there, winning 11 of its final 16 games to wipe out a three-game deficit in the division race.
Gerald Laird, the Detroit backup catcher, said that through it all, Cabrera’s playfulness never waned.
“He was coming in here joking and worrying about his fantasy football team and stuff like that, and this guy is going to go hit the triple crown,” Laird said. “He doesn’t let anything distract him. That’s why he’s the best player in baseball, and probably the best player on the planet.”
For Brandon Inge, a teammate of Cabrera’s in Detroit from 2008 until Inge was released and then signed with the A’s in April, Cabrera’s triple crown seemed inevitable. He said Tigers players talked about it all the time.
“I had a good feeling that if within two weeks he was pretty close to the top in all categories, he was going to run away with it,” Inge said. “Because when he puts his mind to it, there’s no stopping him.
“I’ve always said he’s the best hitter that I’ve ever played with in the game. And that was from the very first year, when everybody said he was struggling. He came over to the American League, and everyone was like, American League pitching is going to be different. I’m going, all right, if that’s struggling, then I’m afraid to see what he does when he gets on a roll.”
Although Oakland brings a better record and home-field advantage to the best-of-five division series, Cabrera enhances Detroit’s postseason chances as much as Mantle, Robinson and Yastrzemski did for their teams. In those cases, however, strong pitching decided things more than the triple crown winner’s efforts.
The ’56 Yankees rode Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 and a Game 7 shutout by Johnny Kucks.
Robinson was named the most valuable player of the 1966 World Series, but Orioles pitching dominated. Moe Drabowsky tossed six and two-thirds scoreless innings of one-hit relief with 11 strikeouts to win Game 1, and Jim Palmer, Wally Bunker and Dave McNally followed with shutouts.
In ’67, Yastrzemski’s .400 average and three home runs could not overcome three complete-game victories by Bob Gibson, the last in Game 7.
The Tigers take heart knowing that their hard-throwing rotation, fronted by the 17-game winner Verlander, may be the best of anyone’s this postseason. Still, Cabrera will be the focal point of a lineup bolstered by Prince Fielder, the former Milwaukee Brewers star who hit .313 with 30 home runs and 108 R.B.I. batting cleanup behind Cabrera.
“They’ve got that three-hole hitter that’s ungodly right now, and he’s been great all year for them,” Oakland right fielder Josh Reddick said of Cabrera. “I feel like if we can keep that guy off the bases and in the park, we’ll be all right. We’ve just got to hit their pitching a little bit better.”
Verlander, meanwhile, expects more spectacular moments from Cabrera, beginning Saturday night.
“Everybody in the stands, everybody everywhere, wants to pay attention when he’s hitting,” Verlander said. “In the ballpark, when they announce Miguel Cabrera hitting, I think everybody in the hot dog line gets out and watches. I do, too. I get out of the hot dog line in the dugout and come down.”
Source: New York Times