Detroit — He admitted it afterward. The home run drought had started to get in his head a little bit.
“I mean, yeah,” Miguel Cabrera said. “You see it. I’ve been struggling this year. But I always stay positive. I always try to do my job.”
The home run drought is over. After 103 plate appearances without one, Cabrera blasted a two-run, walk-off home run off reliever Tommy Hunter in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Tigers a 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays Thursday night.
“It’s big,” he said. “First of all, it’s been a while since I hit a home run (May 20). Second, we need to play better and win more games.”
With pinch-runner Andrew Romine on first and one out, Cabrera clubbed a 2-1 pitch on a high arc toward the wall in right field — a spot at Comerica Park where a lot of balls go to die, many hit by Cabrera during the drought.
“I hit it good,” he said. “But the way this season is going, you don’t know.”
Right-fielder Steven Souza, Jr., tracked it like he had a beat on it, but the ball landed a couple rows beyond the fence.
“That was huge for us and it was big for him,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “It was a good win and he should be happy.”
Cabrera, reluctantly, opened up afterward about how much pain he’s been playing through.
“I don’t want to say I don’t hit because I’ve got something (bothering him),” he said. “I don’t want to make excuses. It is what it is. You still have to go out and play and play hard.”
Ausmus said Cabrera has not been listed on the team’s daily medical reports; and that’s the way Cabrera wants it. He has a long history of not discussing his injuries. The truth is, he’s been playing through pain since he hurt his back early in the World Baseball Classic.
“I hurt it in the WBC and I can’t get it out of the way,” he said. “It’s something I’ve got to deal with every day. I am not going to make excuses. I am still going to go out and play every day and try to do my best.”
The back pain comes and goes. He is also working through tightness in his hip flexor and groin.
“I went on the DL for 10 days with my oblique and that wasn’t enough,” he said, when asked if rest might help. “But I am going to keep playing. I played on a broken foot before. If I can do my job, I am going to keep going out there.”
Cabrera’s blast, his sixth home of the year and the 122nd of his career after the seventh inning, capped a hard-fought night.
“We played good baseball these last few days and we couldn’t finish,” Cabrera said. “We were able to finish it tonight. That is important.”
It was a bounce-back game of sorts for Tigers ace Justin Verlander, as well. It might not have been the cleanest game he’s ever pitched, but he was gritty. He made good pitches with runners on base and kept the Tigers in contention for seven innings.
“You had a feeling it was going to be a close game, so, just keep your guys in it and hopefully we can scratch a couple of runs late,” Verlander said. “That’s what happened.”
He walked five, gave up six hits and put at least two runners on base in second, third, fourth and fifth innings.
But only two crossed the plate.
“He mixed in a few double plays and worked out of some trouble,” second baseman Ian Kinsler said. “That’s what great pitchers do. It’s not always going to be roses when you are on the mound. You are going to have to work out of some trouble and he did that.”
Verlander gave up one run in the second on a single, walk and an RBI ground out by Daniel Robertson. But he struck out Jesus Sucre to end the inning, stranding two runners.
Logan Morrison smacked a two-out RBI double over the head of center fielder Alex Presley in the third.
Verlander put two runners on in the fourth and fifth with no damage. He got a double-play ball from Sucre to end the fourth and he struck out Souza, Jr. — blowing two 96-mph fastballs past him — to end the fifth.
The foul balls that had vexed him in his two previous starts — 46 of them in seven innings of work — were far less an issue. The Rays fouled off 17 pitches, but only three with two strikes.
The remedy: He was able to take a couple of miles per hour off his slider.
“That was one of the points of emphasis,” Verlander said. “I felt like my slider and fastball were kind of blending together a little bit. The slider was at 90-92 mph — a little firm and a little flat.
“So we backed it off a little and got more depth on it. I was able to induce weak contact and have balls put in play instead of them fouling it off.”
He struck out five and got 13 swings and misses, 10 with his fastball. He left the game tied 2-2 after 111 pitches in seven full innings
“I felt like I’ve been on a run where, whether it was foul balls or balls that aren’t hit great find holes or other things seem to go against — when those things happen on a consistent basis, it starts to get frustrating,” Verlander said.
“It’s hard not to allow that to happen, but mentally you just need to continue to pitch and get outs.”
The Tigers couldn’t take full advantage of a rare gift in the seventh inning.
Tampa Bay’s shortstop Daniel Robertson, inexplicably, charged hard on a routine ground ball by slow-footed Victor Martinez with a runner at third and two outs in a 2-2 game. The ball took a crooked hop and bounded past him into left field.
Kinsler, who led off with a single, scored to put the Tigers ahead 3-2.
The lead lasted just one batter. Francisco Rodriguez, who had worked his way back into the late-inning mix, hung a change-up to Steven Souza, Jr., and it was slammed beyond the bullpen in left field to tie the game.
Rodriguez was loudly booed the rest of the inning and as he walked back to the dugout after getting through the inning.
“We are in a situation where we have a couple of good guys setting up — Shane Greene and Alex Wilson — who if I keep using them the way I have been, their arms are going to fall off,” Ausmus said. “We need another guy to pitch down there.
“Frankie did a good job the other night in a high-leverage situation. Tonight wasn’t as great. But we still need another guy to do that and he’s our best option.”