Tigers' Miguel Cabrera shows he still has some defensive chops at first base

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
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Lakeland, Fla. — Tigers starter Jose Urena thought it was going to be a routine PFP (pitchers fielding practice) play. The Phillies had runners at the corners with no outs in the second inning of the Tigers’ 4-1 spring win Wednesday.

Urena got Darick Hall to hit a slow bouncer toward first base and he immediately sprinted over to cover the base, like he's done countless times on the back fields the last few weeks.

Miguel Cabrera has bought into new manager AJ Hinch's philosophies.

Imagine what went through his mind, then, when he crossed paths with first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who was on a dead sprint toward home plate.

“I was surprised,” said Urena, who allowed a run on five hits in 4.2 innings. “He made a pretty good play out there because the runner had from third base came too far down the line.”

Cabrera, who hasn’t played first base in a regular season game since June 18, 2019, scooped up the ground ball and ran directly at the runner Andrew Knapp, who made the same assumption Urena did — that Cabrera would concede the run and get the sure out at first.

Cabrera froze Knapp and made him return to third. Then he pump-faked, got him to stop and made the tag. And he wasn’t done.

With his momentum going toward third, he flipped the ball to shortstop Willi Castro, who alertly ran to cover the bag, and nearly got Odubel Herrera, who went from first to third on the play.

It would have been your basic 3-6 double-play at third base. 

“Miggy fielded the ball recognizing we could cut off a run — that was key,” manager AJ Hinch said. “We also controlled the batter-runner, not letting him get to second base, keeping the double play in order. We put pressure on them to make a decision on the bases. Miggy ran home and then to third which allowed him to make the tag and keep the rundown short.

“And Castro made an instinctual play to get over there. Good baseball.”

Hinch has committed to playing the soon-to-be 38-year-old Cabrera a few times a week, which has ratcheted up Cabrera’s level energy throughout camp. And if you thought Hinch is holding his breath on plays like that because of the chronic pain in Cabrera’s right knee — you’d be wrong.

“You can’t play the game easy,” Hinch said. “I don’t want anything bad to happen, obviously. But you can’t have that mindset and play with a governor. If I didn’t want him out there and he didn’t want to be out there, then we can’t play him.

“But I need him to play the game the right way.”

Already this spring Cabrera has taken extra bases. He’s had to slide. On Wednesday, after he’d singled twice, he ran hard out of the box and nearly averted a double-play.

“He’s going to do a lot of things in games that don’t involve first base,” Hinch said. “Of course you hope he comes out of it healthy, but I don’t walk on egg shells with Miggy.”

Hinch, too, has picked up on the energy surge that occurs whenever Cabrera is on the field.

“Oh yeah, he’s into it,” he said. “When I came to the mound to take Urena out he made sure I recognized the good plays he’s made (laughing). He’s fun to be around and he loves playing both sides. We’ll be smart about it, but when he’s out there, he needs to play hard.”

Hinch said Cabrera was, “arguably the best first baseman we have.” Which begs the question, might he start at first Opening Day and might he play more often than a couple of times a week?

“I love having him out there,” Hinch said. “But we need to keep him healthy to keep him out there a couple of times a week.”

After the rundown play in the second inning, the crowd at Joker Marchant Stadium gave Cabrera a loud, appreciative round of applause. To which he tipped his cap. Pure Miguel.  

Tigers pitcher Jose Urena starts the spring training game Wednesday against the Phillies.

Holland keeps shoving

It was another scoreless inning for non-roster lefty reliever Derek Holland. He’s pitched nine scoreless innings this spring with one walk and 15 strikeouts.

"It's what we've seen the whole spring," Hinch said. 

If there is a lingering question, it’s can Holland consistently get right-handed batters out? Over his career, including his work as a starter, right-handers have an OPS of .820 against him, accounting for 196 of the 214 home runs he’s allowed.

So, it was encouraging that Wednesday he struck out the two right-handed hitters he faced — Alec Bohm and Andrew Knapp — both whiffing on 94.5-mph sinkers that had almost screwball action on them.

“He asked me, ‘What did you see that you hadn’t seen before?’” Hinch said. “And I said, ‘Where did that 94-mph sinker come from?’ He’s doing it and he’s putting a lot of pressure on guys who have been comfortable being on the team.”

Much better

Tigers pitchers walked 11 batters in the loss to the Yankees on Tuesday. Naturally, that was the day that Hinch had scheduled a pitchers’ meeting with pitching coaches Chris Fetter and Juan Nieves.

“I joked with Fett during the game (Wednesday), ‘Good meeting yesterday, since we fixed it already,’” Hinch said.

There were just two walks issued by Tigers pitchers Wednesday. Relievers Bryan Garcia, Holland, Daniel Norris, Buck Farmer and Tyler Alexander combined pitched 4.1 scoreless innings, allowing two hits with seven strikeouts.

Around the horn

Left fielder Robbie Grossman is getting locked in. Batting left-handed against Phillies starter Ivan Nova, he unloaded on a change-up in the third inning. The ball left his bat with an exit velocity of 108 mph and traveled 432 feet, clearing the bullpens and banging off the balcony of CEO Christopher Ilitch’s office in the back of the administration building.

… The Tigers will play a night game Thursday against the Blue Jays in Dunedin, and it will be an important night for pitchers Michael Fulmer and Casey Mize. Both are battling for the final rotation spot and this is their second to last start of the spring. Mize will start and Fulmer will pitch out of the bullpen.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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