Young Tigers rejuvenating Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez
Detroit — The scene was pretty comical.
As the Tigers came to bat in the bottom of the ninth inning Wednesday, Miguel Cabrera, who would hit fourth that inning, ducked into the clubhouse for a cup of coffee to warm himself.
Victor Martinez was already in there, doing his between at-bats preparations.
Both looked up at the monitor when they heard the crack of Dixon Machado’s bat.
“When I got the first coffee drink, I see Machado hit a home run and I was like jumping here in the clubhouse,” Cabrera said. “Victor looked at me and said, ‘What are we going to do?’
“I said, ‘Now we have to wait here.’ ”
So, while their younger teammates jumped on, punched, kicked and threw water on Machado after his walk-off home run in the 6-5 victory over the Orioles, the Tigers’ two decorated veterans were stuck doing a more subdued, almost sheepish celebration in the empty clubhouse.
Cabrera made up for it, though, transforming the clubhouse into a disco, complete with strobe lights and thumping music, to greet their teammates when they came back in.
“It was an exciting moment,” he said. “I’m happy we win this game.”
One of rays of light so far in this Tigers season is seeing the joy return for both Cabrera and Martinez. Both have been healthy. Both have been productive. And both are having fun playing baseball again.
Watch the replay of John Hicks’ dramatic three-run home run in the eighth inning Wednesday. Look who is the first to greet him on the top step of the dugout. That’s Martinez.
That level of engagement was not there much last season, as he battled his heart and performance issues.
“They are having a good time,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “But we have a long way to go here. I hope we can keep them joyful. If they are healthy, it will make a big difference. They are out there playing baseball and not dealing with the training room every minute.
“That’s a big part of it. If we can keep them healthy, they will have fun.”
Long after the initial celebration was over Wednesday, Cabrera situated himself into an empty locker stall next to Michael Fulmer and talked earnestly with the Tigers ace for several minutes.
He’s had similar chats in all quadrants of the clubhouse this season.
It’s been a rejuvenation, the young rubbing off on the old, infusing it with a new energy.
“I think the young guys help us to go out there and feel young again,” Cabrera said. “They bring a lot of energy to us. They always listen. They always ask. So we always feel free to talk.”
Common wisdom says young players benefit from being around veterans like Cabrera and Martinez. Gardenhire, though, thinks the benefits are mutual.
“I think what happens is, I think the veterans feel they are needed more because they are teaching,” he said. “So when the young guys do well, they feel like, ‘Hey, we’re helping.’ That’s always been the case.
“The young guys do help the veteran guys because they’re constantly talking to them and feeding off of them, and that makes them feel better and gets them rejuvenated and feeling young again.”
Back in spring training, Martinez was marveling at some of the at-bats the younger players were having — just carefree, grip-and-rip at-bats. Just like he used to take in his younger days. Just see ball, hit ball.
“I tell myself I am going to take a rookie approach again,” he said, laughing.
He was joking, of course, but there was a kernel of truth there. Both Martinez and Cabrera have stressed a more carefree, just-go-play, approach
“The main thing is, we can talk about whatever you guys want before the game, but when it’s game time, just go out there and play baseball,” Cabrera said.
That attitude is a departure from the past few years. The weight of expectation that hovered in the clubhouse the last few seasons is gone. The heaviness and pressure that builds with successive years of failed expectations — that’s been swept away.
New start. Rebuild. Clean slate. There is a freedom that comes with that. Just go play the game you’ve loved since you were a kid.
“It’s not time to think,” Cabrera said. “Because we already think about it before the game, a lot of hours thinking about the pitcher or how we’re going to play defense. After you prepare for the game, you go out there and play nine innings. Just think about the game, about playing baseball.”
Cabrera turned 35 Wednesday. He had pulled himself out of the game Tuesday night because his wonky back had stiffened on him again. This happened last year, too, on a similarly chilly day, and Cabrera chose to play through it.
He wound up on the disabled list.
“I got back spasms last year when we played in Minnesota,” Cabrera recalled. “My back was tight, so then I go to my right side to get to the ball and then I hurt my groin. I don’t want to do that this year.
“I want to be with the team 162 games. I want to be out there trying to do my best.”
He responded on Wednesday with a double and a home run — both rocket shots to the pull field, left field. He had recently fought through a stretch where he went 4 for 22, grounding out to the left side of the diamond 11 times.
There was a purpose behind that.
He is determined to start hitting the ball hard to all fields. He doesn’t want to get back into a rut where he’s hitting everything to the right side.
“I was trying to pull the ball right there because I need it,” he said. “I need to pull the ball. I need to hit the ball more to left field, center field, so I can use the whole field, not only get hits to right field.
“When you hit a ball to right field, it’s because you do adjustments, because you don’t want to hit the ball too much in front of you.”
Last year, he didn’t have the strength in his core or his lower body — sapped by two bulging disks — to drive the ball with any force to the left side. He’s still working through a lot of bad habits he developed in compensating for his injury.
Slowly but surely, though, he’s getting back to being himself.
“I was a little more aggressive (Wednesday),” Cabrera said. “I got two hits to the left side, so I feel better about that. Hopefully I can find that swing and hopefully it can be everywhere.”
You know how Gardenhire knows Cabrera is getting back to being himself, besides the quality of his swings and his at-bats? The noise level in the dugout has increased.
“I just remember from being on the other side (as the Twins manager), Miggy yelling in the dugout,” Gardenhire said. “I always wondered what the heck he was saying. Is he yelling at us? Did we do something? I didn’t know what he was saying. He was just yelling.
“Now, to be in the dugout with him, I get it. He’s just pumping up the guys. ‘Let’s go!’ It sounded like he was mad at the other team. I kind of like it.”