October 10, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers have overachieved, even if they lose Game 5

Some, of course, say if Miguel Cabrera is hurt, he shouldn't be playing. And if he is playing, he should be hitting. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Oakland, Calif. ó Personal feelings ran deep entering this Aís-Tigers playoff series. They were born of a conviction the Tigers were too compromised by Miguel Cabreraís sore groin to beat a team as well-rounded as the Aís.

But here they are, waltzing into Thursday nightís Game 5 showdown at O.co Coliseum. And I think the Tigers already have overachieved.

They have done well to push this American League Division Series to five games, no matter what happens Thursday night. They have played well, particularly when you consider the gallantry of Max Scherzer and the old-time ways of Justin Verlander in Game 2.

Those pitchers, as well as designated hitter Victor Martinez and left-fielder Jhonny Peralta, have helped soothe fans irked by Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson and any other player who hasnít quite played up to his paycheck or potential in October.

It still gets back to Cabrera. He is not the best player in baseball. Mike Trout of the Angels wins there. But the Tigers third baseman is baseballís best hitter. And if there is any doubt as to why he was last yearís MVP ó and why he could win another MVP trophy next month ó it has been vanquished by the steady, everyday realization a healthy Cabrera is the single most effective game-changer in either league.

Minus the sore groin that has chopped in half his power, this series would have ended in Detroit. There would have been no 1-0 loss last Saturday. There might not have been an Aís victory in Game 3. You can make no such assumptions about any other team in playoff games as well-played and well-pitched as these, all because no other team has Cabreraís one-of-a-kind offensive majesty.

But this team isnít the 2013 Tigers. Itís a hollow version of that baseball club. And, on a daily basis, it is mystifying how little national media appear to understand the depth of Cabreraís pain and the manner in which it has sabotaged his power and this team.

Playing with pain has a price

Some, of course, say if Cabrera is hurt, he shouldnít be playing. And if he is playing, he should be hitting.

But itís not that simple. Jim Leyland, the Tigers manager who is only one of many voices involved in the Cabrera issue, said it best a couple of weeks ago: Just the presence of Cabrera, who can still lace a single, has an effect on pitchers and on a game.

He is playing with pain that prevents him from swinging with force. That same grinding abdominal grief leaves him to trot rather than run on the basepaths. And while you can argue someone else should be playing third when Cabrera is so obviously in misery, doctors say he can play if he can live with the discomfort.

It is his decision ó accepted by the Tigers ó to play.

But it comes with a price, either way. And that price ultimately makes Detroit a diminished playoff contestant, and no match for Boston, even if the Tigers prevail Thursday night.

Bigger-picture questions will be asked after this season ends, beginning with how Cabreraís condition was allowed to deteriorate during the seasonís closing weeks and months.

No sure thing

Along with questions about Cabreraís condition will come grievances from fans who expected a world championship in 2013.

They believe it was their right, and this teamís duty, to win a World Series. They will say it is the fault of Leyland. They will argue it rests on a manager, blessed with a big payroll, to overcome a bullpen that never quite had sufficient pieces at any one time, and to compensate for Cabreraís power-outage and no production from left field.

But the protests ignore simple facts. Twenty-nine other teams, some of which carry heavier payrolls, are all trying to win. They have good rosters, most of them, anyway. They are well-run. And in baseball, where victory is difficult purely because more things can go wrong than right, itís extremely noble to win 90 games. The Tigers won 93.

I think the payroll argument is fundamentally flawed. Thatís because a few players (Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Fielder, Anibal Sanchez, Victor Martinez) account for the brunt of this teamís salary load, and only Fielder (who still had 106 RBIs in 2013) is out of whack in terms of value and compensation.

Outfitted with the Cabrera, who devastates opposing pitchers, this team would have just enough going for it to beat the Red Sox, even with Boston owning an almost-prohibitive advantage playing four games at home.

That wonít happen, even if the Tigers win Thursday night. Not when Cabrera is so disabled. But it takes nothing away from what a team has accomplished in 2013, and what it could just as easily pull off next year if an extraordinary hitter simply is healthy in October.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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