JANIE McCAULEY, AP Baseball Writer
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Josh Donaldson mimics Miguel Cabrera whenever he can, and he has no problem copping to it.
Donaldson spent a couple of days each week over the offseason studying tape of Detroit’s star in the batter’s box, trying to pick up on anything he could apply to his own hitting for Oakland.
Indeed, Donaldson learned a thing or two that worked on the way to a breakout season: .301 batting average, 24 home runs, 93 RBIs in 158 games for the AL West champion Athletics.
“JD’s the MVP of our team and Miguel Cabrera is the MVP of baseball,” A’s first baseman Brandon Moss said.
These two talented third basemen will face off in the playoffs for the second straight October starting with Game 1 of the AL division series Friday night.
One is a household name, 2012 Triple Crown winner and widely considered the best hitter in baseball. The other is a more anonymous up-and-comer whose spectacular September in his first full major league season earned him AL player of the month honors.
Cabrera is making $21 million this season, Donaldson a mere $492,500.
“I’ve watched his videos a lot as far as a hitter,” Donaldson said. “He’s a highly talented hitter, and I really appreciate the way he goes about hitting and I try to learn from him at what he’s doing. I feel he’s one of the best hitters in the game that goes to right field, and what’s helped me be able to take it to the next level this year is the ability to be able to hit it to right field. Watching him over the course of time has definitely helped me.”
Cabrera was pleased to hear that Donaldson had studied his tape.
“Oh, that’s great. That’s awesome,” Cabrera said. “He’s a great player. He’s one of the reasons the Oakland A’s are in the playoffs. He brings a lot of energy to their ballclub. I think you’ll see he can change the game with his bat but his glove, too.”
And to think Donaldson had prepared to play catcher until he was called upon to fill in at third when Scott Sizemore went down with a season-ending knee injury at the start of spring training 2012.
Aside from much focus at third base, the rematch of last fall’s first-round series takes on a far different look this time around. Cabrera, Prince Fielder and the Tigers have something to prove after being swept by San Francisco in last year’s World Series, while the A’s were hardly a surprise division champion this time and know how close they were to beating the Tigers and reaching the ALCS.
Max Scherzer (21-3) gets the ball opposite Oakland 18-game winner Bartolo Colon for the opener. Tigers manager Jim Leyland is going with Justin Verlander in Saturday’s Game 2 against rookie Sonny Gray.
Verlander beat the A’s in Games 1 and 5 last year.
That’s still plenty fresh for both sides, but so is the A’s late August visit to Comerica Park in which they took three of four on Detroit’s home field.
The A’s didn’t need a last-second rally this year like their improbable late-September 2012 push in which they stunned Texas on the final day — and became the first team in major league history to win a division or pennant after trailing by five games with less than 10 to play.
“It’s definitely a little more pressure when you’re out in front than when you’re playing from behind — when you’re behind, you’re still the underdog,” A’s center fielder Coco Crisp said Thursday. “To be honest, I think we’re still the underdog when we’re in front.”
Cabrera’s big bat will decide plenty. He hit .348 with 44 home runs and 137 RBIs but often has played through pain because of a variety of injuries — a troublesome back, a sore left hip, a lower abdominal strain — for a Tigers team coming off its third straight AL Central crown.
“I wish tomorrow at game time I’m 100 percent. I feel much better the last couple days,” Cabrera said of his groin problem. “I don’t think it’s going to be an issue for the playoffs. Anything can happen. I’m ready to give everything on the field.”
Leyland has seen improvement in Cabrera’s leg strength.
“He’s playable. He’s not 100 percent,” Leyland said. “He’s handicapped a little bit, but the last few days have been better.”
Donaldson will take note of Cabrera, even if not fully healthy.
“Any time I can watch him hit, if I’m watching a game, I like to watch and see what he’s doing,” Donaldson said. “That’s what I do in the offseason.”
Still, the A’s expect Cabrera to bring his best in October when the stakes are so much higher.
The A’s have their own injury concerns, with left fielder Yoenis Cespedes hoping to play the outfield Friday.
Manager Bob Melvin said Cespedes threw Thursday to test his sore right shoulder and “there’s a good chance you’ll see him in left field tomorrow,” and not be relegated to designated hitter.
Leyland considered Oakland’s home field one of the most difficult last year as raucous, sellout Coliseum crowds packed the place for the team’s first playoffs in six years.
And, now, tarps in the third deck have been removed to bring capacity from 35,067 to 48,146 in a dual-sport facility that has featured sewage spills in the clubhouses and dugouts this year.
“I’ve heard the plumbing here isn’t quite up to standards,” Scherzer quipped. “I’m hearing the birds chirp on that.”
Kind of fitting for the blue-collar, low-budget franchise.
“It’s a little more rugged,” Crisp said. “It does have its own personality.”
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