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 shouldn’t be long now. As the air chills and the skies darken, it’s not really a question of whether they’ll reach the playoffs. It’s a question of whether they’ll be ready when they get there.

That’s 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 isn’t 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 I’m done double-checking the gas gauge. Let’s assume his tank isn’t dry, and in the postseason he’ll be a vital part of a deep, tough rotation.

Cabrera’s situation is trickier because he’s 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.

It’s easy to shriek the Tigers should give him a break, and I’m 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 Cabrera’s impact is too important to ignore.

'I want to be out there'

Oh, it’s painful to watch at times, and hCabrera was hitting .194 in his last 11 games before Friday night. He hadn’t 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 that’s too small of a sample size to make a point about sitting him. The team insists the groin injury isn’t 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 wouldn’t put him out there unless I felt he could go out there,” Leyland said. “I hope he’s pretty well on the mend, but sometimes those things go day to day. I’m just thankful he’s playing. And on days he can’t play, I won’t 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?

“It’s 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 it’s foolish to suggest he’s 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. Verlander’s 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 he’s feeling better, knock on wood,” Leyland said. “He hit extra today, and that’s a great sign. I actually thought he was running a little bit better. He’s certainly not pain-free, or out of the woods, but he’s playing, they’re all playing, and they know what’s 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, they’ll grapple with the ever-nagging conundrum. They need Cabrera now, but they’ll need him even more later.

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