Gritty Cabrera finding way to save best for last

Despite battling bone spurs in ankle, slugger in midst of sustained power surge

Gritty Cabrera finding way to save best for last

DETROIT -- The key to success at the plate, if you ask Wally Joyner, is the ability to transfer weight from back foot to front foot. The Tigers' hitting coach's opinion on the subject should carry considerable -- ahem -- weight. Not only did he bat .301 or better four times during his Major League career, but the team he instructs is also leading baseball in on-base percentage while ranking second in runs scored and slugging percentage.

Miguel Cabrera, battling bone spurs in his right ankle, has, for now, lost the luxury of deciding just how much weight to put on his back foot when he steps into the batter's box. In order for Cabrera to avoid the pain that accompanies the injury, he needs to shift the weight off the bad ankle. In order for him to be the hitter fans expect him to be this time of year, with Detroit in a neck-and-neck chase for the American League Central title with Kansas City, he needs the power from his back leg.

Joyner referred to it as a "balancing act," and it's a battle Cabrera is fighting, behind a grimace, in every at-bat.

"'How much weight can I put on it?'" Joyner said. "'How much weight can I put on it that will allow me to do it again? If I do too much, I'm done.'

"He manages that every pitch."

Somehow, Cabrera is managing just fine. It's entirely possible -- likely even -- that this is finally the year he will relinquish his two-year grip on the AL Most Valuable Player Award to the Angels' Mike Trout. It's hard to call Cabrera's numbers "down," given that he's still batting above .300 and with 100-plus RBIs. But they nonetheless are.

However, since the calendar turned to September, Cabrera has looked more and more like his old self -- which is remarkable, considering what he's up against.

It's not just the bone spurs that are ailing Cabrera. Last offseason, he underwent surgery to repair a torn groin that he not surprisingly played through. According to Joyner, "We've had to deal with it since then."

Cabrera told USA TODAY in July that, in September of last season, he "wasn't using [his] bottom half, [his] feet and the waist area." That month was one of his worst ever as a Tiger.

This year, the injury is localized to just Cabrera's right ankle -- a far smaller impacted region than the entire lower half that was affected last September. Perhaps that's why this is shaping up to be a far stronger stretch run for him.

Through 10 games this month, Cabrera is batting .450 (18-for-40). He's already homered five times, exceeding his total for all but one month this season. Cabrera's OPS is an incredible 1.376.

"It just shows the talent that he has and how good he is," Joyner said. "Right now, we're hoping that he can tolerate the injury and be in the lineup.

"You do what you can. He has an injury that prevents him from being 100 percent. What he has done through this year is figuring out what he can and can't do -- and how consistently he can get to that point."

Cabrera has also left manager Brad Ausmus bereft of any real explanation for the surge.

"Certainly, with hitting, a lot of times confidence breeds success," said Ausmus, who, like Joyner, is in his first year of watching Cabrera practice his craft on a daily basis. "But I don't know that I could tell you exactly what the reason is, other than maybe water finding its level."

For perhaps the first time in Cabrera's career, a painful wince is a more commonly found fixture on his face than his infectious smile. It's there during home run trots, or even just strolls to first. And it forces Joyner to admit that the version of Cabrera he's seen this season isn't the one he watched on TV prior to taking the job as hitting coach.

"He's been a tremendous ballplayer for many, many years, to the point of being the best in the game," Joyner said. "For me, I don't think I've seen the best of Miguel like everybody else has in person."

What the Tigers get out of Cabrera the rest of the season might not be what they've gotten from him before, but one-third of the way through a promising last month, Cabrera is doing his best to fool you -- just ignore the grimace.

Matt Slovin is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.