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The Strike Zone

New injury concern for Cabrera could affect MVP and postseason races

Miguel Cabrera, TigersMiguel Cabrera was clearly in pain while striking out to end Tuesday's loss to the Twins. (AP)

So much for the receding of concerns regarding Miguel Cabrera. In Tuesday's rundown of the factors that could derail American League contenders, I noted that the Tigers slugger's three-week hot streak suggested he had worked through the abdominal/hip flexor issue that sidelined him in late July and early August. However, on Tuesday night he was in visible discomfort during his game-ending strikeout against the Twins, and whether he sustained a new injury or reaggravated an old one, he may again have to miss time, though he is in the lineup Wednesday against Minnesota.

Cabrera played in 97 of Detroit's first 98 games this year before missing four straight from July 23-26, and after tallying just 10 plate appearances over their next four games -- none of which saw him play all nine innings -- he sat out for three more games from July 31 through Aug. 3. Including his return as a pinch-hitter on Aug. 4, he has played in all 17 Tigers games since, starting the other 16 including both games of an Aug. 16 doubleheader. In that span, he collected hits in all but one game and thoroughly demolished opposing pitching, hitting .358/.427/.776 with eight homers and 21 RBIs in 75 plate appearances. He hit homers in four consecutive games from Aug. 9-12, two off Mariano Rivera, both of which led to blown saves from which the Yankees recovered to win. Cabrera's homer on Aug.t 17 was a walkoff shot against the Royals' Aaron Crow.

Alas, Cabrera's health may have prevented him from summoning the ninth-inning magic on Tuesday night. With the Twins holding a 6-3 lead, closer Glen Perkins got the first two outs but in the process put two runners on to bring Cabrera to the plate representing the tying run. He swung and missed at the first pitch, after which he grimaced, and he continued to look as though he were in pain throughout the remainder of the seven-pitch plate appearance, which ended with another swing and a miss. Via MLB.com's Jason Beck, here's Tigers manager Jim Leyland's reaction afterward:

"That first swing, it looked like he reacted with some pain," Leyland said. "You could see it in his facial expression. I don't know what the situation is. I'll have to go check it. I could tell when he came up the steps he was hurting a little bit."

At this writing, it's still not clear which of the multiple injuries -- abdominal strain, hip flexor, bruised left leg -- Cabrera has been battling is the one that flared up, or if it's a new complaint. Thus there's no prognosis as to how much time he could miss. The 30-year-old slugger has been exceptionally durable during his 11 major league seasons; he's never been on the disabled list, and in four of his five full seasons with Detroit, he's played in at least 160 games. From 2004 through 2012, the entirety of his complete seasons, he's averaged 158 games a year.

If Cabrera doesn't need to go on the DL and can heal with just a few days of rest, this isn't the worst time for him to be sidelined. The Tigers (73-52) have a 5 1/2 game lead over the Indians in the AL Central, and a 99.0 percent chance of making the playoffs according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds. Their next five games are against the Twins and Mets, who are a combined 22 games under .500. After that, the schedule tightens up with series against the A's, Indians and Red Sox, all of which would take place during a hypothetical 15-day DL stint. The road beyond that, however, is much easier. Of Detroit's final 22 games, the six against the Royals are the only ones against a team above .500, with the White Sox, Mariners, Twins and Marlins rounding out the slate.

If a DL stint is necessary, it's more likely to cost Cabrera -- who's hitting .359/.450/.684 with 40 homers and 120 RBIs -- as an individual than the Tigers as a team. His chances of leading the league in several key categories would take a significant hit, though it could preserve his leads in batting average and on-base percentage, since those are more likely to regress than to rise. That wouldn't necessarily cost him a shot at a second straight AL MVP award, but it would give more time for his competition -- Mike Trout, Chris Davis and Manny Machado -- to make their cases, and it would end any hope he had of winning an unprecedented second consecutive Triple Crown, a longshot already given that he trails Davis by five homers.

Ultimately, however, this isn't about personal hardware. Cabrera won the Triple Crown and the MVP award last year but fell short in the World Series. Almost certainly, he'd trade those honors for a world championship, and so would the Tigers. While they've nursed him through several injuries thus far, they need to let him heal while there's still time.

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