September 25, 2013 at 1:10 am

Lynn Henning

Miguel Cabrera's injury hurts Tigers' title chances

Miguel Cabrera is still leading the American League in average and RBIs, but his power has been severely diminished by his injuries. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Sports has a long and hallowed history of surprises:

Joe Namath over the Colts in Super Bowl III.

The United States over Russia in a 1980 hockey game that jolted the earth’s axis.

Villanova over Georgetown for the 1985 NCAA basketball title.

The Tigers are looking at roughly the same degree of difficulty against the A’s as quickly as Detroit stops dawdling and sews up its Central Division title.

That is how deeply the odds of a Tigers world championship, or even their opening-series playoff survival, have been lengthened by a groin injury to supreme lineup commander, Miguel Cabrera.

The Tigers always can pull an upset sports happily invites from a supposed weaker team. But the extent to which the Tigers have been all but kneecapped by Cabrera’s groin injury is profound.

And from all available medical evidence and reports, Cabrera’s malady is not about to heal until the offseason provides extended time for a disabling injury to mend.

Cabrera’s sore groin has triggered a chain-reaction that threatens manager Jim Leyland’s club each and every time Cabrera hobbles to the field.

Offensively, the most intimidating batter in baseball has become a singles hitter. He has two extra-base hits — a home run and a double — since Aug. 26. When healthy, a home run and a double were often on the game-day scorecard during Cabrera’s first two-bats.

The groin injury has robbed Cabrera of his power, particularly on inside pitches, where his need to twist and to torque are clearly compromised by an abdomen that cannot cooperate.

It leaves Cabrera to swat singles. Lots of singles. Which brings about the next problem in this sequence of negative energy.

He cannot run.

Cabrera can, at best, trot to first base. He cannot accelerate once he is on base and is obliged to take off when ensuing hitters stroke the ball, either for a hit, or whatever.

Where the Catch-22 becomes most cruel is that running aggravates the groin irritation. Cabrera was aboard three times in last Saturday night’s victory over the White Sox, after three of his vintage September singles. By the end of the game was in such pain he could not play the next day.

Singles hitter

Absent the brand of fence-busting power he brings to Detroit’s lineup, the slow-footed Tigers are caught with an offense that stagnates, too often living on station-to-station hits, even as Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Omar Infante, etc., all enjoy terrific finishes to the 2013 regular season.

They had 10 hits in Monday’s night’s cringe-worthy 4-3 loss to the Twins. They had 11 hits in last Sunday’s loss to the White Sox but again, scored only three runs.

They had scored three or fewer runs in four of their last 10 games, including Tuesday night’s 4-2 victory over the Twins. In three more of those games they scored four and five runs — not the run-production you expect from a team with the league’s highest average (.285).

But, ironically, that average confirms the absolute necessity for a healthy Cabrera and for the extra-base thunder he uniquely provides — or, more accurately, provided — with his league-leading average (.350), on-base percentage (.446) and, most vitally, slugging percentage (.646). Perversely, an injured Cabrera shows just how valuable Cabrera is, and was, as voters prepare to submit their 2013 ballots for American League MVP.

One month ago today, Cabrera was about to hit his 42nd home run and knock in his 127th and 128th runs. The next day, against, Oakland, he hit his 43rd homer and bagged his 129th and 130th RBIs.

Thirty days later he has 44 home runs and 137 RBIs. One home run, seven RBIs, spanning 30 days, with no realistic prospect that anything will, or can, change. And all because of a complicated injury that allows him to play — an ailment that won’t significantly benefit from him not playing — and yet halves his extraordinary skills

Beginning the day after Cabrera hit his Aug. 26 home run, the Tigers have rolled up a 15-12 record, including Tuesday night’s victory. Not bad, but not the brand of baseball the Tigers, with their sturdy starting pitching and helpful surrounding hitters, would otherwise expect to play against mostly weak teams.

The missing piece, of course, is a hitter whose bat can literally destroy opposing pitchers and strategies. He is there, but he isn’t. His hand-eye coordination is sublime, as always, but rather than those doubles up the gap or against the fence, and in place of those home runs that would soar majestically into space, he rips singles up the middle or to right field.

He cannot pull the ball or unleash that Greek god-like swing that so often demolished the scoreboard and Tigers opponents.

No margin for error

If it were a matter, only, of offense, the Tigers could still expect to out-pitch a playoff rival when October’s postseason theater begins.

But, ah, Cabrera’s constrained ways stress another soft-spot that becomes more vulnerable when Detroit’s offense suffers: the bullpen.

There is too little margin for error, as Monday’s game confirmed.

With only a three-run lead, Justin Verlander had to leave a game in which he had struck out 12 in six innings. He and the Tigers might have expected Jose Veras and Joaquin Benoit to wrap up an evening’s work against a less-than-daunting Twins lineup.

But when Veras had a rough eighth, and Benoit couldn’t get away with a high fastball to Brian Dozier during his overtime stint (he came on in relief of Veras in the eighth) in the ninth, the Tigers saw that three puny runs weren’t enough to win a game they had no business losing.

This is the team they will take against the hot and powerful A’s when the Division Series begins Oct. 4. This is the team, with a crippled superstar, that is expected to match up against baseball’s best clubs at a time when playoff baseball makes no accommodations for a weakened lineup.

It leaves Detroit’s baseball community to think about sports and its propensity for upsets. It will require an upset for the Tigers to have any kind of shelf life during October. And that could happen, even before a much stronger Tigers team begins to take shape ahead of 2014.

But for now, the Tigers and their playoff hopes are symbolized by the heartbreaking scene of a man unable to run, jogging along a basepath, doing his best to leg out a single that weeks ago would have been a home run.

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