Wojo: Cabrera, Tigers hit boiling point with fists of fury

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

It was simmering all day, all series, all season really. And on an ugly, manic afternoon, the fury and frustration came spilling out, most graphically displayed in the balled-up fists of Miguel Cabrera.

The Tigers finally got their swings against the Yankees, and for fans, it had to be alternately gratifying and horrifying. The Tigers won 10-6 to avoid getting swept, but the score was merely a perfunctory balm, like an icepack after a prize fight.

This was baseball justice delivered haphazardly and ridiculously, and we can debate where it began, here or during an earlier tiff in New York. There’s no debating where it escalated, in the sixth inning on a hazy Thursday, when Cabrera squared up like a boxer against Yankees catcher Austin Romine, after Cabrera was nearly hit by an apparent retaliatory pitch from Tommy Kahnle.

The nastiness that ensued for the rest of the day was unlike anything we’ve ever seen, from Cabrera swinging wildly, to the benches clearing three times, to flailing fists in the middle of body piles. In the midst of the worst season of his career, this was the low point for Cabrera, who surely will face a suspension.

He was the obvious culprit but he wasn’t the only one, and in an odd way, his outburst appeared cathartic. You almost could see it coming, not necessarily the physical eruption, but the emotional outburst from a struggling star who struck out with the based loaded his previous at-bat.

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When it was over, four batters were hit by pitches (two on each team) and five players were ejected, along with both managers, Brad Ausmus and Joe Girardi. Picking through the aftermath, you’ll see all sorts of ugliness. You’ll see the Yankees’ Gary Sanchez pounding cheap shots on Cabrera at the bottom of the pile. You’ll see Ausmus and the Yankees’ Brett Gardner angrily shouting at each other. You’ll see and hear the sickening thump as Tigers catcher James McCann took a pitch off his helmet and slumped to the ground, then later returned to hit a home run.

You’ll see an animated dispute in the Tigers dugout between Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez, which ended with Verlander snapping a dismissive wave as Nicholas Castellanos restrained Martinez. You’ll see frustration and anger on both sides, from a Tigers team enduring a woeful season and a Yankees team trying to scrape into the playoffs.

“You don’t see games like this very often, for good reason, because there’s injury concerns,” Ausmus said. “And I hope I never see one of them again.”

‘Tried to act tough’

The simmer began in the fifth, when Michael Fulmer hit Sanchez with a pitch, after Sanchez had homered for the fourth time in the series an inning earlier. Fulmer later would say it wasn’t intentional, and the wild pitch was the result of another elbow nerve twinge, which has plagued him all season.

His explanation made sense as he shook the feeling back into his fingers, but it looked bad, and the Yankees retaliated in the sixth. Kahnle’s first pitch to Cabrera — a 97-mph fastball — sailed behind him, and Kahnle was ejected, along with Girardi. Cabrera made no overt move then, but after pitcher Aroldis Chapman finished warming up, it began. Suddenly, a few blocks from the new Little Caesars Arena, a hockey brawl broke out.

Cabrera stepped back to the plate while engaging in a verbal dispute with Romine (awkward side note: Romine’s brother, Andrew, plays for the Tigers). After several seconds, Austin Romine ripped off his mask and Cabrera responded with a shove, then squared up to fight. He threw a couple of swipes that didn’t land directly before Romine wrestled him to the ground.

Cabrera stood at his locker afterward and calmly explained why the altercation escalated. He said he was fine with what he considered a deliberate beanball attempt because the Yankees were defending their own. But when Romine kept arguing and “tried to act tough,” in Cabrera’s words, he responded.

“He took off his mask like he wanted to fight, so that’s it, that’s what happened,” Cabrera said. “You don’t want to see that, you don’t want to see people hit in the head, or fighting on the field, but people have to understand we’re human. Sometimes when people throw at you at 97, you react.”

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Romine’s view: “It felt like he wanted a confrontation there. And I just tried to defend myself the best I could.”

Cabrera said he felt there was carry-over from the series in New York three weeks ago, when several Tigers dodged tight pitches and Mikie Mahtook took one from Kahnle in the face. That was the undercurrent in the seventh inning Thursday, when Dellin Betances lost control and plunked McCann in the head.

The Tigers actually didn’t consider it intentional, and since the scales of baseball justice were ostensibly balanced at the time, it probably wasn’t. But at that point, intent was no longer the issue, and the benches cleared again. McCann wasn’t angry afterward, just thankful he wasn’t seriously hurt, and showed it by slugging a satisfying home run in his next at-bat.

Another Yankee pitcher, David Robertson, hit another Tiger batter, John Hicks, right after McCann. It also was clearly unintentional, on an 0-2 pitch, and the teams finally held their composure, briefly.

This is where the perceived justice system gets screwy, but hey, no one said there’s a playbook. Tigers reliever Alex Wilson delivered the last plunk in the eighth, nailing Todd Frazier. Wilson admitted it was intentional, which surely will add to his punishment from the league.

Defiant Tigers

But this is where the Tigers sit right now, 55-71 near the bottom of the AL, taking their victories where they can find them.

“You gotta take care of your teammates sometimes,” Wilson said. “With me hitting a guy in the leg, if that’s what I have to do to take care of my teammates and protect them, then that’s what I did.”

There was defiance in the tone, and in that regard, the Tigers showed some spirit. That’s good. But it’s not exactly the type of spirit you want to tout, or repeat, or rely on.

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Girardi said he thought it was clear Fulmer’s beaning of Sanchez was intentional. Fulmer was adamant it wasn’t, and his elbow issue provides plausible deniability. He called the elbow nerve “zap” the worst pain of his career, which again begs the question: Why do the Tigers insist on using their prized pitcher late in a wasted season?

An issue for the next day. For this day, Fulmer wanted to make it clear he didn’t intend to start one of the nastiest episodes the Tigers have ever engaged in.

“I’m not the type of guy to retaliate like that just because a guy hit a home run,” Fulmer said. “I have more dignity than that. They took it as on purpose, and I don’t blame them. I really don’t. It’s just part of the game. I had zero intention, I know that, and my teammates know that too.”

The Yankees didn’t know it, or didn’t believe it, and they fired back. And finally, late in a lost summer, there was an epic, emotional battle at Comerica Park between the home team and a storied opponent. Unfortunately for the Tigers, it likely will stand as the highlight (or lowlight) of their season.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski