DETROIT -- Yes, Miguel Cabrera is injured. He is a wounded Tiger, dealing with an injury to his left leg that has him visibly limping at times, contributing to a stretch from Aug. 27 through the first four games of the ALDS in which he had just two extra-base hits.
Yet he's still a threat, as became clear when he slammed homers in Game 5 of the ALDS and Game 2 of the ALCS, and in the first two contests against the Red Sox he sent a number of pitches screaming to different parts of the park. And so, even with his limitations, his potentially game-changing impact could not be dismissed.
The Sox did not dismiss his impact. Instead, they neutralized it in memorable -- perhaps even unprecedented -- fashion en route to a 1-0 victory in Game 3 of the ALCS that gave them a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series against the Tigers.
Cabrera went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. For the first time in 32 postseason games -- dating to when he was a 19-year-old prodigy playing for the Marlins in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series -- he failed to reach base in a playoff game.
But that told only part of the story of the Sox overpowering the player who is likely to claim his second straight American League MVP trophy this year. Cabrera swung and missed a shocking eight times on Tuesday, with seven of those whiffs coming on fastballs and one on a cutter.
"We have a game plan going in. What does [eight swings and misses on fastballs] tell you? We know what we're doing," said catcher David Ross. "He's really good. But if we can execute, he may hit a heater 400 feet tomorrow, but we like our chances. We like our pitching staff. They know what they're doing, and they're really good. That's what that says."
The Sox had seen the impact that power stuff away could have on Cabrera. His limitations on those pitches have been evident throughout the postseason, resulting in more than 60 percent of all pitches being thrown away to him during the playoffs. Cabrera has remained reasonably productive on pitches middle-in, hitting .333/.333/.667 with a pair of homers in 18 plate appearances where the decisive pitch of the at-bat was middle-in. But on pitches away, he was 1-for-9 with no extra-base hits.
It is on pitches away that Cabrera is forced either to stride uncomfortably toward the pitch or, if he keeps his base planted, face diminished plate coverage. A player who rarely has weaknesses thus has an evident vulnerability.
Still, to exploit it, a team needs to execute or else, as Ross suggested, face the prospect of yielding a 400-foot homer. And the Sox exploited that vulnerability in virtually unprecedented fashion.
According to Baseball Analytics, which has complete pitch-by-pitch data since the start of the 2008 season, Cabrera had swung and missed eight times in a single game just twice before during that six-season span -- once on July 6, 2011 against the Angels, and once on Aug. 23, 2008, against the Royals. Over that stretch, he never had a game in which he swung and missed at more than six fastballs.
In 2013, he never swung and missed more than seven times in a game -- most notably, with one of those seven-whiff games coming on June 20 against the Red Sox, in a game started by John Lackey, the same starter who was on the hill in Game 3. Lackey blew five fastballs by Cabrera in that game, four of those having been away.
Based undoubtedly in part on that success, Lackey made a blunt introduction to Cabrera on Tuesday, attacking him with four straight fastballs in the first inning (one of which elicited a swing and miss up and on the inside corner) to elicit a flyout to center. The second at-bat featured a first-pitch cutter for a swing and miss, and then three more fastballs, two up above the strike zone for swings and misses. The third at-bat featured five pitches -- all fastballs away, two of which resulted in swings and misses.
And finally, there was the eighth-inning at-bat between Cabrera and Junichi Tazawa.
There was at least a hint of surprised that Tazawa was even in the game. He had come into the contest with the Sox clinging to a 1-0 lead, one out and a runner on first before promptly yielding a single to Torii Hunter that put runners on the corners with one out. Contact -- even if an out -- had a good chance of tying the game.
"There's a whole lot of prayer going on when you've got Miguel Cabrera with a guy at third, one out," said Ross, who was watching the action unfold from the bench. "You're like, 'Man, a double play would be nice here.' You don't see that guy strike out much or expand the zone."
The reality of the circumstance, and the likelihood of a tie, were both apparent.
"You kind of lower your expectations," said bench coach Torey Lovullo. "You think, the probabilities are that he's going to tie this game in some way. Hopefully he hits a hard line drive or a ground ball at somebody and we can turn two."
With Koji Uehara warming, it would have been easy for manager John Farrell to summon his closer for five outs, hoping that the right-hander's ability to generate swings and misses would deliver a pivotal out without permitting the tying run to score.
But Farrell stuck with Tazawa against Cabrera.
"We liked the matchup with power against Cabrera. Cabrera has had good success against Koji in the past, hit a couple of balls out of the ballpark against him. And particularly after the base hit the other way by Torii to put them in the first-and-third situation, we felt power was the best way to go here," said Farrell. "Whether he climbed the ladder away from him late or just stayed hard with him, it was a pivotal moment. You're getting the best guy in baseball at the plate, trying to preserve a one-run lead. And that was a swing moment for sure."
Tazawa had been preparing for this confrontation. Bullpen coach Dana Levangie had made clear that, once in the game, he'd face Cabrera. Still, the situation was imposing -- until Tazawa blew a first-pitch 94 mph fastball down and away, over the outer third of the plate, past the slugger.
"I was thinking that the worst-case scenario, walking him wasn't the worst thing to do. So, I was using outside fastballs a lot," said Tazawa. "When he swung at the first pitch and missed, I felt that he was a little bit late. But it was still a surprise that [catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia] asked for consecutive fastballs. But I think that was a fine play on Salty's part.
"He's such a good hitter," added Tazawa. "I was aware that giving up a sacrifice fly is not the worst thing to happen, but for the team, it was probably not the best thing to happen. When I got ahead, I was thinking, 'I'm getting a strikeout.' "
To do so, Tazawa and Saltalamacchia were going to stick with fastballs, though Tazawa changed his hold times and his time to the plate in an effort to disrupt Cabrera's timing. The approach seemed to pay immediate dividends, as Cabrera swung and missed at a 95 mph fastball up and outside, took a 94 mph fastball away and then, finally, saw a fairly feeble swing on another 94 mph fastball come up empty for the pivotal punchout.
"It's probably the biggest out of the game. Knowing Cabrera and knowing that he's such an RBI machine, any chance he gets in that situation it seems like he never fails, he's always going to succeed," said Saltalamacchia. "Taz coming in, he was smart. He came in and mixed up his slide steps, really kind of kept him off balance to where he couldn't get his timing down. Obviously made great pitches, [94-95] right there on the corner. Huge, huge out."
When Uehara then came on to face Prince Fielder, the outcome seemed almost inevitable. The Tigers had seen their opportunity come and go. Fielder's three-pitch strikeout against Uehara merely represented the deflating culmination of a missed opportunity that Detroit may lament, and the Sox celebrate, for some time.
"I think that special players do special things in special moments, and I think Junichi rose up to a challenge and did his job," said Lovullo. "It was the last thing we were all expecting because of Cabrera's track record, but tip your hat to Tazawa for getting the job done in that situation."
Regardless of Cabrera's injury, this represented a Skywire act of the most daunting order. But in a situation where the Sox were operating without a net, Tazawa navigated the Sox to safety -- an outcome that could hardly be taken for granted, but one that represented the culmination of a day when the Sox managed to dominate the Best Hitter on the Planet in a fashion that virtually has never been seen in his career, a performance that -- much like the Sox' last two wins -- represented an act of defiance of the odds.
"It was certainly the most pivotal at-bat of the game," said reliever Craig Breslow. "We all know what he's capable of doing and how dangerous his bat can be. We also know that Taz is throwing the ball well, has power stuff and can get a big strikeout when needed. Today he got it. I don't know how that situation plays out nine times out of 10, but I know how it played out one of one today."