Miguel Cabrera’s health leaves a dark cloud over Tigers’ pennant push

Lynn Henning

Chicago — Anyone confused, bewildered, or even bamboozled by Miguel Cabrera’s health issues should know there is company.

Nothing about his situation in 2014 has been clear or clearly explained. What we know is a superstar who has won three consecutive batting championships and who bashed 44 home runs in each of the past two seasons is today batting .300 with 17 home runs.

He has not been right for months. His swings have been uncharacteristically off-key. His power has all but vanished to the left-side pull field. His strikeouts have mounted.

Early on, it was naturally assumed Cabrera was still healing from last November’s hernia surgery. That, I was told, in emphatic and authoritative fashion, was incorrect. Cabrera was not suffering effects from his core muscle repair.

He simply was not hitting.

The story changed, dramatically, in recent days, all because Cabrera’s physical state was altered, ominously. Cabrera has a bad right ankle. It was hurting so badly Saturday night at U.S. Cellular Field that in the fourth inning he had to leave a game the Tigers won, 8-4.

The Tigers and Cabrera are torn about what to do, and isn’t this a familiar story. Exactly one year ago Cabrera was struggling with a ripped abdomen that neither permitted him to play at anything close to full strength nor persuaded him or the Tigers that he should go on the disabled list.

With doctors signing off, it was decided Cabrera could play through a pennant stretch and accept a situation that would not fully heal until the offseason.

Twelve months later, with the Tigers in the inferno of another playoff chase, Cabrera is again aching. And again he is attempting to cope with pain, all because he wants to play, the Tigers want to win, and nobody is sure that even a few days of rest will make significant difference.

“I don’t know that four or five days will do anything,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said after Saturday’s game, and what has become of late an all-too typical Cabrera game: 0-for-3, one strikeout, and an RBI on a hard ground ball that knocked in a run.

“Sometimes, he’ll come in after an overnight and it feels pretty good. It’s delicate. Miggy wants to play. He’s old school. Give the guy a lot of credit. He wants to play.”

Roaring silence

That he wants to play is hardly news. That a week off might be a waste of time is not in dispute, not when a training staff and consulting doctors have said as much. That he will not heal fully until he can devote a long autumn and winter to recovery also is implied and all but acknowledged by the Tigers.

But notice whose testimony is missing: Cabrera’s. He will not talk about his condition. Twice in the past month he has been personally approached. The first occasion, he turned his back on a question before it was fully asked. The second time, he waved off a questioner before a single word was spoken.

It has been explained by superiors that Cabrera isn’t happy with media who, in his view, have not sufficiently been sympathetic or supportive of his off year.

Of course, for anyone to understand the mystery of Cabrera’s 2014 season, he needs to level with everyone. It sounds as if his team has been as mystified by his summer ordeal as the public.

I asked the Tigers, officially, Saturday to offer any clue as to when Cabrera’s ankle condition first emerged. Word was relayed from the training staff that he has been treated for his sore ankle, off and on, since the start of the season.

Ausmus said Saturday night that it was later this summer when he learned of Cabrera’s ankle ailment. This might be a matter of degree, but Cabrera injured the ankle on a slide sometime after the All-Star Game, and then aggravated it on another slide during an Aug. 20 game at Tampa Bay. Three days later he stepped awkwardly on first base and missed the next day’s game.

Toughing it out

During the past week it has been obvious Cabrera is in acute pain. His at-bats are compromised. His work in the field is constrained. But he prefers playing first base to the boredom of designated hitting, and he can indeed function at first, which is why the Tigers allow him to perform when the call is essentially his.

Ausmus repeated Saturday what the Tigers have known about Cabrera forever. He levels with them. That he bites bullets and has a pain threshold as high as any athlete’s is also universally known. And so the Tigers defer to experts, doctors, who can say with assurance that what Cabrera is doing is not violating his long-term medical interests. Rather, it’s a matter of what he can stand and what he can yet do, with all parties aware that what we are seeing is nothing close to what a healthy Cabrera can execute.

Intuitively, a thought persists: Why not order him to take off a week?

The Tigers, the trainers, and clearly Cabrera, do not see it that way.

“He’s literally day-to-day,” Ausmus said, which gets back to Cabrera and to his daily updates. It’s tough to tell a superstar with Cabrera’s passion to sit when it’s his body and his conviction that he is ready to go.

No one, I’m convinced, is fudging the truth here. I see no conspiracy, no deceit. What I don’t see is a straight story, probably because a man’s will to play is more definitive than a condition that won’t come close to improving until this season is history.