October 10, 2013 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

Feeling the pain, Miguel Cabrera still delivers joy to the Tigers

Oakland, Calif. — No sign of an Extra Strength Tylenol bottle sticking from Miguel Cabrera’s baseball pants pocket Thursday night at O.co Coliseum.

But you might have expected Cabrera has been loading up on the painkillers this week, and even for the past couple of months, considering that his groin felt as if it had gone through the washing machine’s spin cycle.

But he’s Cabrera. He does phenomenal things. Even when he’s hurt.

Thursday night, with the Tigers and their baseball season six innings from slipping into Motown’s scrapbooks, Cabrera somehow wheeled on a 94-mph fastball from Sonny Gray, and with the one-half of his body that still works, sent it soaring toward San Francisco Bay.

It dropped behind the left-field fence for a two-run homer that seemed to unbind a tight, constrained Tigers lineup and team that hasn’t been in rhythm since Cabrera’s abdomen tightened up in late summer.

The Tigers needed nothing more. They had their Cabrera home run. They had their Justin Verlander masterpiece. They won Game 5 of their American League Division Series against the A’s, 3-0, and will now try their luck against the Red Sox beginning Saturday in the AL Championship Series at Fenway Park.

But, honestly, Cabrera? He had hit one home run since Aug. 26 before he tattooed Gray’s inside fastball and dredged up memories of past antics by Detroit’s resident baseball superstar.

He had hit a lone double during that same span. Two extra-base hits in six weeks. From a man who could very well add a twin MVP trophy to the one he took home last year.

But still hitting

It wasn’t because the Milky Way’s best hitter was in a (gasp) slump. Cabrera was still lashing away at pitches and handling most of them.

But they were swatted for singles.

He was a mess, physically — so much so the Tigers will be explaining after the season why an early injury to his back and hip metastasized into something far more disabling. Which is what it became after his groin was yanked apart by the game’s daily stresses and strains.

But, of course, this is Cabrera, and you can dispense with the usual traditions and habits when it comes to a 30-year-old Venezuelan whose hitting gifts six years ago landed in Detroit.

He was going to play. As long as doctors said yes — and one can assume it was grudgingly — Cabrera was not sitting out games or at-bats. Even when he’ll no doubt admit in a few days, or weeks, that he probably should have begged off.

“I mean, we’re here in the playoffs,” Cabrera said late Thursday night, speaking slowly, in that Maracay-marinated accent of his. “Everybody talk about what’s going on with me — I want to do my job, man.”

His job is to hit. But the reality is he could no longer mash the ball as summer turned into autumn. Not with any of that old Cabrera horsepower. He was punching singles to center and to right. But gone were those rainbow fly balls that would travel high and far and beyond fences, sometimes to center field’s distant locales.

The A’s knew it. Everyone who has been following Cabrera during this past month, including opposing scouts, and absolutely including A’s manager Bob Melvin, knew Cabrera was not the same guy.

But you could also see the respect. Notice how many of those first pitches thrown by the A’s during a five-game series were straight from the archives: down and away, safe from Cabrera’s swing.

And then Gray, a marvelously talented 23-year-old right-hander with a dreamy career ahead, tried to do what most pitchers have discovered they could do with the new, gimping Cabrera.

One hallowed homer

He tried to whistle a fastball past Cabrera, along home plate’s inside alleyway. Pow.

Cabrera probably felt as if a blacksmith had just pulled a horseshoe from the forge and jammed it into his gut. But he spun on that 94-mph heater and it looked as if Cape Canaveral had been transferred to a playoff baseball game as the ball lifted into space and beyond the fence in left.

“A little surprised he pulled it for a home run,” said Bob Melvin, the A’s manager who had been studying Cabrera’s lower-gear at-bats, and who knew the A’s had caught a break — until Thursday. “It looked like his approach the whole series was to hit the ball up the middle and (he) didn’t have the leg-drive that he normally does.

“Yet, I don’t know how surprised you can be when Miguel Cabrera hits a home run.”

It wasn’t on the same level of drama or heroism Kirk Gibson had displayed 25 years ago this month, down the road at Dodger Stadium, when he was all but wheelchaired to home plate and smacked a ninth-inning home run against Dennis Eckersley that sent the Dodgers on their way to a championship.

But in terms of pure guts and his homer’s donation to Tigers history, Cabrera’s blast Thursday has its place, a hallowed place, in preserving a baseball postseason that now swings into the World Series semifinals.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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Miguel Cabrera, who supplied the game-winning hit, a two-run homer in the fourth, joins the celebration after the Tigers clinched the ALDS with a Game 5 victory over the Oakland A's Thursday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News