September 14, 2013 at 1:16 am

Bob Wojnowski

A healthy Miguel Cabrera has to be Tigers' top priority

Detroit The Tigers are getting closer and closer, and it shouldnt be long now. As the air chills and the skies darken, its not really a question of whether theyll reach the playoffs. Its a question of whether theyll be ready when they get there.

Thats what this 10-game home stand is mostly about, and no issue is bigger than the health of Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers beat the Royals, 6-3, on Friday night to maintain a six-game lead with 15 remaining, and the jacketed crowd of 40,389 was in a festive mood. It will turn from festive to restless soon because everyone knows this season isnt just about winning a piddlin division crown.

The quest for the World Series is as urgent as ever, and the Tigers will need at least a moderately healthy Cabrera and a nasty Justin Verlander to get there. Both are fighting to regain form, with periodic signs of improvement. Verlander stuffed the Royals with seven strikeouts and no walks in six-plus innings, and Im done double-checking the gas gauge. Lets assume his tank isnt dry, and in the postseason hell be a vital part of a deep, tough rotation.

Cabreras situation is trickier because hes been ailing for nearly seven weeks with abdominal and groin strains. He winces on the field. He hobbles to first base. And lately, his timing has been off at the plate.

Its easy to shriek the Tigers should give him a break, and Im sure they will after actually clinching a third straight division title. But there are two reasons they never put him on the disabled list because they need his production, and because he still produces. You can bet Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland wrestled with the notion, but Cabreras impact is too important to ignore.

'I want to be out there'

Oh, its painful to watch at times, and hCabrera was hitting .194 in his last 11 games before Friday night. He hadnt collected an extra-base hit since Aug. 26 until he laced a Bruce Chen pitch to the right-field wall for a double. Prince Fielder followed with a two-run home run for a 3-1 lead, and another threat was averted.

Leyland has rested Cabrera occasionally, and the Tigers see subtle signs of improvement. He took extra batting practice Friday and sounded a bit more positive.

I feel better, hopefully I can produce, Cabrera said. For sure, I want to be out there.

He deserves loads of credit for battling through it, no matter how arduous it sometimes looks. The Tigers are trying to buy time not bide time with Cabrera. I think the plan all along was to get a healthy division lead, then work on getting a healthy Cabrera. Is it mildly risky? Sure. But when the division lead shrunk below five games, it was just as risky to sit him.

I know the Tigers record is 10-3 without him in the lineup, but thats too small of a sample size to make a point about sitting him. The team insists the groin injury isnt necessarily worsened by playing, but every movement and swing by Cabrera raises the possibility of aggravation.

You cringe if you see him move a certain way, but I wouldnt put him out there unless I felt he could go out there, Leyland said. I hope hes pretty well on the mend, but sometimes those things go day to day. Im just thankful hes playing. And on days he cant play, I wont play him.

Cabrera has missed 11 games since July 23 and played sparingly in a few others. But he clearly wants to play, and if anything, his star aura has added another layer of toughness. Through the bulk of the ordeal, you know what Cabrera has been? Still the best hitter in baseball.

In August, when the muscle strains flared and subsided and flared again, he hit .356 with 11 home runs and 31 RBIs, and was smack in the hunt for a second straight Triple Crown. How do you sit someone with those numbers?

Its something I have to live with right now, Cabrera said. In the offseason, you rest. Right now, you work.

When the pain was at its peak a couple weeks ago, Cabrera said he wondered about the disabled list. But then the September call-ups filled out the roster and no official designation was necessary. He still leads the league in average (.348) and RBIs (133), and its foolish to suggest hes hurting anything by playing hurt as long as he makes it through the postseason.

A playoff feel to it

This night had a playoff feel, and the Tigers are sharpening up. Verlanders command was better, although he did surrender nine hits. And Cabrera did drive the ball, although he later struck out on three pitches.

I do think hes feeling better, knock on wood, Leyland said. He hit extra today, and thats a great sign. I actually thought he was running a little bit better. Hes certainly not pain-free, or out of the woods, but hes playing, theyre all playing, and they know whats at stake. You gotta give em a lot of credit.

Once the division book-keeping is done, the Tigers sights will shift higher very quickly. In the meantime, theyll grapple with the ever-nagging conundrum. They need Cabrera now, but theyll need him even more later.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
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Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera has been battling abdominal and groin strains during the past seven weeks. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News