Wojo: With Tigers in playoff limbo, Cabrera delivers again

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — When you get a break now, you’d better take advantage. The Tigers need a few breaks, and nobody seizes them like Miguel Cabrera.

It was the bottom of the fifth but it felt like the bottom of the ninth, with rain falling and more on the way in a tie game. With one mighty swing, Cabrera untied it and essentially ended it, his three-run homer giving the Tigers a 6-3 lead over the Indians. After another delay of one hour, 12 minutes, the game was called and the critical victory was official.

So in the past two nights, the Tigers won when the Indians used all their backups after clinching the division, then prevailed with a timely blast and a timely storm.

“We knew the rain was there, and it was a matter of when it showed up,” Brad Ausmus said. “You keep your fingers crossed that the weather forecast was right.”

Hey, when opportunity presents itself in any form, you take advantage any way possible. It’s been a season of limbo for the Tigers — in, out, up, down — and there’s little room left under the bar. But they’re still squeezing, still a game behind the Orioles, who beat the Blue Jays in dramatic fashion Wednesday night.

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It’s down to a four-game push for the second wild card, and every little edge matters. The Indians offered a gift with their patchwork lineup Tuesday night, and presented another concession Wednesday night. They used a succession of bullpen guys as they rested their starters for the playoffs, while the Tigers sent rookie star Michael Fulmer to the mound.

Missing his spots

The Tigers needed something to wash away the Indians because Fulmer’s command was off. After the first rain delay, the Indians tied it 3-3, setting up a potentially long, soggy night.

But Cabrera is scorching now, on a seven-game hitting streak with 10 RBIs in the past three games. The Tigers couldn’t enjoy a true walk-off victory on the field, but they enjoyed it in the clubhouse when the game was called shortly after 11 p.m.

“Oh there was a buzz in here,” Fulmer said. “We really needed that one. (Cabrera) always comes through in the clutch, no matter what inning it is. He’s Miggy, the best hitter on the planet.”

Mere moments after Cabrera’s swing in the steady rain, the umps called for the tarp, and the radar maps were ominous. More rain is expected today in the home finale, so it’s a slippery slope of hope for the Tigers. Everything was up in the air Wednesday night, quite literally, from the dark clouds to the tight standings. It’s a fitting, blurry stagger to the finish for the Tigers and their wildcard-chasing cohorts — mainly the Blue Jays, Orioles, Mariners and Astros.

The Tigers are churning forward with a pieced-together rotation and a shaky bullpen, and their biggest advantage might be the schedule. The Indians are set to give Ryan Merritt his first major-league start today. Then the Tigers head to Atlanta to face the last-place Braves, who will start unheralded Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair the first two games.

The Tigers have Daniel Norris starting today, but then it gets dicey. They’re forced to use Jordan Zimmermann, who hasn’t been fully healthy for a while, and either Buck Farmer or Matt Boyd on Saturday, and both have been roughed up lately. The Sunday finale against the Braves could be a pitching showdown between Justin Verlander and Julio Teheran in front of a big crowd witnessing the last game at Turner Field.

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If a playoff spot is on the line, you want Verlander on the mound. The Tigers would prefer to have a spot clinched by then to save Verlander for the wild card, but really, does anyone expect a quick resolution to this?

Verlander-Fulmer could be a formidable duo, and the Tigers are hoping their season-long strategy with Fulmer pays off. Ausmus didn’t give the rookie an innings limit, but several times squeezed in an extra day or two between starts. It was judicious but not overly restrictive, and it probably was the right thing to do.

Banking on youth

If Fulmer made a couple more starts, could that have been the difference in making the playoffs or not? Maybe. But there were slight signs of wear on Fulmer, who had struggled in four of his past six starts before Wednesday night.

Nevertheless, if the Tigers are to grab a wild card, and if they’re to do anything with their one-game shot, Fulmer might have to be the guy. With Verlander pitching Sunday — again, unless the Tigers somehow have clinched a berth — Fulmer could start a possible wild-card game Tuesday, or even a wild-card play-in game Monday.

The odds of the Tigers making a postseason run are pretty low, mainly because of their young starting pitchers, who have been ridden hard because of ineffective or injured veterans — Zimmermann, Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey. The flip side is, the Tigers are only in position because young starters Fulmer, Norris and Boyd pitched in to help Verlander.

When the burly 6-foot-3 Fulmer stands on the mound, firing 94-mph fastballs, it’s easy to forget he’s 23 and began the season in Triple A. It’s easy not to realize he only needed 6? innings to qualify for the AL ERA title — his 2.95 led the Blue Jays’ Aaron Sanchez (3.06), the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka (3.07) and Verlander (3.10) before Wednesday night’s games. Fulmer didn’t hit the mark, pulled in the fourth inning, but that doesn’t diminish what he’s done.

This is the time of year experience usually matters, but the glare doesn’t seem to bother Fulmer. He had command problems against the Indians, and threw 68 pitches through three innings, when the rain caused a 45-minute delay. He’d just escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam without surrendering a run, keeping the Tigers’ deficit at 1-0.

Fulmer doesn’t ruffle, which bodes well for the future, even though he’s a significant piece of the present. A couple weeks ago after a terrific outing against the Orioles that resulted in a comeback victory, Fulmer was asked about the atmosphere at Comerica Park.

“It felt like playoff atmosphere,” he said with a grin, “if I knew what playoff atmosphere was like.”

He might yet find out this season. The Tigers keep sliding under the limbo bar, getting lower and lower, closer and closer. It doesn’t matter any longer how high the bar is, it’s all about just getting through.