CLEVELAND -- Torey Lovullo vividly remembers the day Asdrubal Cabrera first showed up in his dugout. Lovullo, manager of the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, had been told by the higher-ups in the Indians' front office to immediately insert Cabrera into the game on that July day in 2006, after Cabrera had been acquired from the Seattle Mariners for Eduardo Perez. "He got there about the fourth inning," Lovullo recalled. "We shook hands quickly and introduced ourselves. Then he was put in the game at shortstop in the seventh inning and made two spectacular plays."
Such instant impact, it would later come to be known, is Cabrera's specialty. The Tribe, simply put, has been a different team since the switch-hitting, slick-fielding Cabrera arrived from Buffalo in early August of this year, usurped the second base starts from Josh Barfield and took over the No. 2 spot of the batting order. As the Indians gear up for the American League Division Series against a Yankees team that beat them six times in six games, they take comfort in at least two facts: The Yanks didn't face ace C.C. Sabathia this year, and they barely got a whiff of this 21-year-old kid Cabrera, who came from out of nowhere to become the club's late-season spark. The Yankees swept the Indians on Aug. 11-13, and the Tribe lost a game to the division-rival Tigers on Aug. 14. On Aug. 15, Cabrera, who had been in the Majors for just a week, became the everyday second baseman. The Tribe is 31-13 since that date -- the best record in the big leagues in that span. And if you think it's all a coincidence, think again. "Asdrubal coming up," third baseman Casey Blake said recently, "really gave a breath of fresh air to our club when we needed it the most." But before Cabrera could provide that fresh air this season, he had to catch his breath at Double-A Akron. Cabrera had advanced to the Triple-A level with the Mariners by the age of 19. He skipped over Double-A entirely, and, while his defensive skills were polished, his bat suffered for it. During Spring Training, the Indians sat Cabrera down and told him he'd be regressing a level to work on his swing at Akron. It was the baseball equivalent of being held back a year in school. Cabrera's heart was crushed, but his head knew it was the best thing. He knew he had holes in his swing -- holes that led to a combined .249 average between Triple-A Tacoma and Buffalo in '06. "One of the things they asked me to do was go down and swing at strikes," Cabrera said through interpreter Luis Rivera. "The year before, I was swinging at anything, even if it wasn't in the zone." And when Cabrera swung, he did so from an elevated batting stance. He held his hands up toward his head, and the result was a choppy swing that jabbed the strike zone, rather than flowing through it. During the Tribe's Winter Development program for Minor Leaguers, Cabrera began placing his hands closer to shoulder level, shortening his swing and making it more fluid. He continued to refine that approach with Akron, under the watchful eyes of manager Tim Bogar and hitting coach Lee May Jr.
The numbers speak for themselves: In 96 games at Akron, Cabrera batted .310 with 23 doubles, eight homers and 54 RBIs. Cabrera was ready to return to Triple-A. And it didn't take Lovullo long to notice a change in him. "He had a more consistent approach offensively," Lovullo said. "And as hard as it was to believe, he was a little more mature. You would shake your head and wonder if [his age] is really true." Upon Cabrera's re-arrival, Lovullo, a former Major League utility man, discussed with him the finer points of playing second base. The Indians needed some middle-infield depth at the big league level, and they were hoping Cabrera, a natural shortstop who had played just one game at second in Double-A, could fit the bill. "I showed him a couple things really quick, and it was like he knew it and had learned it all his life," Lovullo said. "For him to quickly understand what I was talking about -- his turns and his feeds -- was very rare. My job is dealing with 21- and 22-year-olds, where I'll spend half a season trying to teach them things. In this case was a 21-year-old where I taught him something in five minutes, and he learned it in the sixth minute." Cabrera played nine games with Buffalo this year. Lovullo only had to see him once at second base to make the recommendation that the Indians call the kid up. With utility infielder Mike Rouse struggling at the plate, Cabrera joined the club in Chicago on Aug. 7 to take Rouse's roster spot. No one in the organization seriously expected him to be a regular starter within a month, let alone a week. But Cabrera's confidence, and the ease with which he adjusted to the Major Leagues, was palpable. "He's a baseball player," manager Eric Wedge said, inferring a high compliment. "He has a great feel for the game. He's playing the game with no fear." To Cabrera, it all came naturally, even as the Indians played him at a rather unnatural position.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.