The right shoulder of Justin Verlander -- the one that has helped him deliver a Major League-high 33,692 pitches since 2005 -- is understandably fatigued. And the right ankle of Miguel Cabrera -- the one that has helped generate the force behind 384 homers and a Major League-high 1,354 RBI since 2003 -- is most certainly sore.
This is a month in which every established big leaguer is fighting through something, nagging or otherwise. And this is a Detroit Tigers team loaded with stars.
But some injuries matter more than others, some stars burn brighter than others, and so it is with fascination (and, I'm sure, plenty of Motown frustration) that we watch the Tigers' two most magnetic talents battle their bodies in the midst of a captivating American League Central race with the Royals.
"They're going to grind through anything they possibly can, no question," said Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers' president, CEO and general manager. "They'll be fine, they'll be fine."
The Tigers sure need them to be, and well beyond this year. Cabrera and Verlander are signed to top-of-the-heap extensions that haven't even started yet. Cabrera's eight-year, $248 million contract doesn't kick in until 2016, while Verlander's five-year, $140 million deal begins next year.
Yet for the second straight September, Cabrera is dealing with a compromised lower half, while Verlander is putting up subpar stats with a shoulder issue that merits monitoring each and every pitch. It's an open question as to whether the future performance of either guy will ever completely align with the particularly gargantuan salaries soon coming their way, but, well, we know how most of these mega-contracts play out, especially for pitchers.
The present, therefore, matters so much to this Tigers team with an aging core and, as has been the case for quite a while, a World Series-or-bust mentality. In a game in which young talent is increasingly vital and payroll, in and of itself, is increasingly insignificant, this just might be, for all we know, the Tigers' last legit chance to win one behind their two signature stars. The game is that unpredictable.
And so Cabrera's name gets penciled into every lineup, Verlander's name into every fifth starting slot. When the Tigers bet big bucks on Verlander and Cabrera, they bet not just on their abilities and their histories but also their competitive instincts.
Those instincts are everything right now.
How invasive is Cabrera's ankle issue? Invasive enough to keep him in the designated hitter slot for the entirety of this week's four-game series with the Indians. Manager Brad Ausmus was hoping to get Miggy back at first for Friday's opener of a weekend set with the Giants, if only because he doesn't want to overdo it with his other premier middle-of-the-order bat, Victor Martinez, on the defensive end.
"We're going to have to balance it," Ausmus said.
Balance, actually, is essential for a hitter, particularly one of Cabrera's size and skillset. He's enough of a freak of nature that, even with the ankle barking, he went deep twice on Labor Day and can still rip hits to all fields (the Tribe's Danny Salazar was so amazed at Cabrera's ability to go the other way with his breaking ball the other night that he could only shrug and smile after the fact). But the issue undoubtedly played a part in his rather woeful August, when Cabrera had a .252/.354/.336 slash line. Miggy fends off all questions about his condition these days, but Martinez knows what he's going through.
"This game, you have to use your legs, big-time," Martinez said. "Anything from the waist down, if you're hurt, it's going to be tough. Especially for a guy like him. That guy is like 6-foot-5, I think, with 260 pounds. All his weight is going to be [on that foot], and it's really tough. He's basically hitting with his arms and not using his legs. Pitchers have to use their legs, hitters have to use their legs, when you field the ball, you have to use your legs. Your legs are pretty much everything in this game."
Well, a pitcher's shoulder is a big deal, too. And while the photo hack seen 'round the world is the Verlander item in the headlines at present, the condition of his labrum and rotator cuff is ultimately the bigger deal. An MRI last month thankfully revealed no structural damage, and he can still get it up in the mid-90s in spurts. But his four-seamer velocity average is nonetheless nearly three full ticks down from where it was a year ago, per BrooksBaseball.net, and, if he's not executing to near-perfection, he's at risk for what happened Wednesday night, when the Indians lit him up for six earned on nine hits over 6 2/3.
"You have to look at the positives on a night like this," he said afterward. "My arm strength felt better than it has and I got deepish into the game."
It's a positive, too, that Verlander is on the mound and not on a surgeon's table. Let's not lose sight of that. His overall durability is still a rarity and a blessing.
Still, the natural worry is that pitching through this now is going to come back to bite him later.
"The thing about Justin is he's such a competitor and no matter what he has going on, he's going to come back and try to beat you," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "He's like that whether he's feeling good, feeling bad, it doesn't matter. He's still going to give it everything he has. Hopefully the arm keeps responding and we get a chance to play in the playoffs and he can be a big factor for us."
Cabrera and Verlander have more than just their current conditions in common. They both had offseason core muscle surgery -- a procedure known to leave an athlete feeling out of sorts for a good year or so. In Cabrera's case, it netted what was, for him, an abnormally slow start to the season (.277/.320/.415 in April). For Verlander, it's entirely possible that compromising for the discomfort in his core affected his arm angle and, ergo, his shoulder issue and some measure of that 4.80 ERA.
"There have been some things that we've seen in his delivery that we think could be related, but we're just not totally sure," Jones said. "What we're trying to do now is make sure he doesn't get [his arm angle] up too high and that his arm stays in the same slot. Guys have a tendency sometimes to vary their arm angle with certain pitches, but we're trying to keep him in the same spot."
Cabrera, meanwhile, can't really do much but sit between at-bats. Neither the team nor the player seem willing to have him rest much longer than that.
"I think Miggy's injury last year was a lot more [problematic]," Dombrowski said. "That basically took him down. He didn't have the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark. But he still has that now. You've seen that the last few days."
The Tigers need to keep seeing it in the coming days and weeks, and they need to see Verlander make better adjustments as he tries to do more with less. The entire season doesn't exactly rest on their shoulders, because this is still a club with David Price, with Max Scherzer and V-Mart (two pending free agents), with Torii Hunter and Ian Kinsler, with breakout starter Rick Porcello, with the out-of-nowhere No. 5 hitter J.D. Martinez. It's a team with an unreliable bullpen, but that's another topic for another time (and perhaps Verlander emerges as an October option there, a la Tim Lincecum in 2012).
In the end, though, the Tigers' universe -- now and for the foreseeable future -- still centers around two men. It's Cabrera, and it's Verlander. It's the will battling the body, with the clock ticking and October beckoning.