Miguel Cabrera bumped knuckles with manager Ron Gardenhire as he emerged from the Detroit Tigers‘ dugout for a curtain call. He turned toward the seats, albeit with no fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and celebrated his 2,000th hit with the ballclub.
He gave one final wave before fading back in the dugout, much like he has with reporters since he last spoke in spring training. But in a statement after Sunday’s win, Cabrera acknowledged his team’s 16-16 record in the shortened 60-game season.
“I am happy for reaching 2,000 hits with the Tigers and, most important, that we are winning games,” said Cabrera, who is 12-for-25 with one homer and nine RBIs in his past seven games. “We are growing up as a team, and that can be seen on the field.”
General manager Al Avila has noticed, too. He had options to trade away key pieces of this year’s team, but chose not to. He let Monday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline come and go with just one move — giving outfielder Cameron Maybin to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for 25-year-old middle infielder Zack Short, ranked No. 21 in the Cubs’ farm system.
“If that trade is not there, frankly, we like our team,” Avila said last week, “and we’ll keep our team together. We’ll keep trying to win.”
In a way, that’s what he did.
Avila’s return for the 33-year-old Maybin wasn’t much, but that was expected. Short was new to Triple-A Iowa in 2019, where he hit .211 with six home runs, 17 RBIs, 21 walks and 50 strikeouts in 41 games.
He hasn’t stood out in his four-year professional career and doesn’t project as a long-term part of Detroit’s rebuild.
Still, the Tigers reportedly did not engage in talks over second baseman Jonathan Schoop, and Avila held onto left-hander Daniel Norris, who gained interest from the Tampa Bay Rays. While those choices might have had more to do with the uncertain market or a non-desirable return, the .500 record was influential in Monday’s approach.
And for a man who refuses to speak in the age of Zoom news conferences, Cabrera’s statement couldn’t have been more correct: the 2020 Tigers are not the same team that went 47-114 in 2019.
The Tigers have clawed into a position to make a run for the expanded 16-team postseason, only two games out of the American League’s eighth and final spot. Gardenhire believes it can happen, as does Schoop. Even rookie pitcher Casey Mize can feel momentum building: five wins in a row and three consecutive series victories against opponents with winning records.
So Avila is keeping the squad together.
“Our goal is to try to get in the playoffs,” Gardenhire said Sunday. “I said that and people laughed at me. Now all of a sudden, we’re back to .500 and everybody wants to talk about it. I’ve been saying that the whole time. Anything can happen in this short season, and there’s a lot of openings in this stuff. As long as we keep playing like this, we will have a shot at the end.”
The return to the win column from a nine-game losing streak began Aug. 20 in the clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, where the Tigers were swept by the red-hot White Sox. Cabrera, catcher Austin Romine and Maybin gathered the team to rebuke the hardships.
Detroit responded by beating the Cleveland Indians the next day to snap a 20-game losing skid against them and took two of three in the series. After winning two more against the Chicago Cubs, the Tigers had to stay focused after Thursday’s boycotted game with the Minnesota Twins and a rainout of Friday’s doubleheader.
They swept Saturday’s doubleheader and won 3-2 in Sunday’s contest, in which four bullpen arms — Tyler Alexander, Joe Jimenez, Buck Farmer and Gregory Soto — threw six scoreless innings.
“We know we’re talented,” Alexander said Sunday. “And we know we have a chance to do something special and shock a lot of people. We have that mentality even when we’re not winning, so that’s what helps us reel it back in when we do sort of run into a bit of a rut.”
The sharp turnaround has been enhanced by glimpses of Cabrera’s MVP seasons, when he often made opposite-field home runs, finding holes in the infield and doubles to the wall in the outfield gaps look easy.
Because of Cabrera’s improvement, it’s simple to forget about Schoop, who is having a career year for the Tigers on a one-year contract, hitting .303 with eight home runs and 19 RBIs.
Schoop needs to serve as the catalyst for a playoff race the Tigers have suddenly entered. He has made the postseason in four of his seven seasons, reaching the ALCS in 2014 and NLCS in 2018.
More importantly, he knows what it takes to win — something not many on the 2020 roster can say.
After watching Cabrera’s milestone and witnessing the growth of the Tigers through conversations about racial injustice and on-field performance, Schoop believes he is on track to make the postseason for the fifth time in his career.
“It’s an honor for me to play with him,” Schoop said of Cabrera. “He’s the best player I’ve played with, so it’s an honor for me to be here and see all the records he’s going to break. You know, trying to win with him, trying to push for the playoffs and go get a ring.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.