How do you boil down a 3,000-hit career into a singular base hit? Easy. If you’re Phillies manager Joe Girardi and you are asked to recall the one year that you worked with Miguel Cabrera, you think back to the time when he did something that you hadn’t seen before — and will never see again.
“He hit an intentional-walk pitch for a game-winning hit,” Girardi said Sunday.
True story. Go ahead and look it up.
It was June 22, 2006. Top of the 10th inning at Camden Yards in Baltimore. Cabrera, then 23, was in the midst of an MVP-caliber season for the Girardi-managed Florida Marlins. With the go-ahead run on second base and one out, the Orioles tried to walk Cabrera intentionally. Back then, the pitcher actually had to throw four balls to the catcher, who would stand up and ask for a lob well off the plate. Most hitters would keep the bat on their shoulder and take their base.
Not Cabrera. Orioles reliever Todd Williams’ first toss was too close to the plate. Cabrera teed off, lining a single to center field that scored Hanley Ramirez and broke a tie in the Marlins’ eventual 8-5 victory.
“He didn’t try to do too much,” Girardi said. “That was what was amazing to me. He was never a guy that tried to do too much.”
That was hit No. 546 for Cabrera. So after he notched No. 3,000, a single through the right side against Colorado Rockies starter Antonio Senzatela in the first game of a doubleheader Saturday in Detroit, Girardi walked to the outfield at Citizens Bank Park to deliver the news to the Phillies player who he knew would appreciate it the most.
Nick Castellanos teamed with Cabrera for parts of seven seasons with the Tigers, occasionally even batting behind him. He thought for a moment Sunday before stating, unequivocally, that Cabrera is the best hitter with whom he has ever played.
The talent was always obvious. Cabrera won back-to-back American League MVP awards in 2012-13. For 12 seasons, from 2004 through 2016, he slashed .323/.402/.566 and averaged 39 doubles, 33 homers, and a .968 OPS per season.
Castellanos learned from Cabrera just by watching him at the plate. But there was something else that impressed Castellanos about his future Hall of Fame teammate.
“How he always remained a child,” Castellanos said. Asked to elaborate, he said the secret to Cabrera’s success was “always keeping it as a game,” regardless of whether he was at his peak or struggling over the last few seasons.
Girardi was a first-year manager and Cabrera an emerging superstar when they came together for one season in South Florida. Cabrera batted .339 and was runner-up to Pittsburgh’s Freddy Sánchez (.344) for the batting title.
It was just a preview of things to come.
Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski was running the Tigers when he pulled off a blockbuster trade to bring Cabrera to Detroit before the 2008 season. Cabrera won four batting crowns and led the league in hitting, homers, and RBIs for the Triple Crown in 2012.
“How mature he was as a hitter, how he really — at such a young age — knew how to play the game and how to hit, I mean, I was amazed,” Girardi said. “I would say he’s one of the smartest young players I’ve ever been around. You felt good every time he went to the plate.”
Well, except when Girardi managed against him for many years with the Yankees. In particular, Cabrera went 5-for-16 with one homer and four RBIs in a four-game sweep of New York in the 2012 AL Championship Series.
“Honestly, for about a 12-year period, he was ridiculous,” Girardi said. “He was a nightmare.”
How do you game plan against that?
“You hope there’s a base open,” Girardi said.
And that the pitches are far enough outside that Cabrera couldn’t reach them.