By Ashley Dunkak
In the postseason, weaknesses get exposed quickly. Sometimes they can be corrected. Sometimes a team just has to live with them and do the best it can, and that is the situation for this Detroit Tigers team as it enters Game 5 of the ALDS.
As anyone who has watched games can see, the Tigers are startlingly vulnerable at third base. Cabrera has never been a stellar third baseman, but until the injury, he has been serviceable. Now, hardly able to run, he is an undeniable liability in the field.
In Game 3 of the ALDS, a ball bounced off Cabrera’s glove, and a run scored on the error. In Game 4, a blooper came down the third base line, and Cabrera had to run in to scoop it up. Hampered by his abdominal and groin ailments, he took so long to get to the ball that his throw to first came too late, and the runner reached safely instead of the Tigers getting what should have been an automatic out.
For the rest of the game, every time after that play that a ball went Cabrera’s way, tension built for a moment in the crowd, in the press box, as everyone waited to see if Cabrera would handle it. Expect similar reactions in sports bars Thursday.
Because the current designated hitter, Victor Martinez, can also catch, the Tigers could eliminate the issue of Cabrera’s shoddy defense by putting Martinez behind the plate. However, that would not only risk injury to Martinez, who missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL, but would also take Alex Avila out of the equation. As the regular catcher for the whole season, Avila knows the pitchers best, does a solid job working with them to call the game and has done a good job making stops on runaway pitches. Messing with such an important defensive spot as catcher does not seem wise.
Martinez delivers clutch hits galore and has been an absolute beast since the All-Star break after a rough start to the season. He is as much a staple in the lineup as Cabrera, so if he is not catching, he has to be designated hitter, which leaves Cabrera at third base. Is it ideal? No. Is it what the Tigers will do? Almost certainly.
Another defensive spot about which people still worry is left field, which Jhonny Peralta is playing for the first time in his career dating back a few weeks. Some have wondered if Peralta could not simply be put back at shortstop since rookie Jose Iglesias, while a defensive marvel, has not hit well at all in the postseason. This is unlikely to happen, however, because with Cabrera injured – and the complications that would ensue from DH’ing him – the Tigers need all the speed and range they can get to cover the gap between second and third, and Iglesias clearly has an advantage of Peralta in that regard.
Again, though, Detroit will leave Peralta in left field because it desperately needs his bat in the lineup. Coming back from his 50-game suspension, Peralta has delivered in several big situations already. It was his three-run homer that tied up Game 4 after the Tigers began the game with a three-run deficit. His production is more important than his defense.
Seeing a theme? It is one Detroit skipper Jim Leyland has acknowledged often since the return of Peralta. The Tigers are willing to sacrifice defense for the possibility of offensive punch. It has paid off so far. Whether it will continue to do so is up in the air, of course, but this strategy is what the team does, and the Tigers will not deviate from their course now.
Leyland realizes the weaknesses as much as anyone else, but – perhaps unlike many fans – he is prepared to live with the consequences of going with the same approach that won Detroit first place in a much-better-than-usual AL Central.
The strengths of the Tigers are starting pitching and a potent offense. At this point, Detroit must trust in what got it to this point in the playoffs and let that be enough.
“This is a time of year where it’s really interesting because everybody comes up with all these different scenarios that maybe you could try this, did you think of this and that,” Leyland said before Game 4. “It’s interesting, but we are what we are. This is the way we play the game.
“This is who we are,” Leyland added. “There are no tricks.”
Detroit will stay true to its identity Thursday, and we will see if the strengths prove to be strong enough.