Cabrera, Francona close careers as Tigers beat Guardians

DETROIT — Miguel Cabrera made a backhanded stop, stepped on first base and smiled in the eighth inning on the final play of his career, and the Detroit Tigers beat the Cleveland Guardians 5-2 Sunday.

The game also marked the end of Terry Francona’s career, Cleveland’s manager, who led Boston to a pair of World Series titles, is set to retire this week.

Francona said the day belonged to Cabrera.

It most certainly did.

The only player to win the Triple Crown in more than a half-century went 0 for 3 with a walk in his last plate appearance. He made his season debut at first base, where he was the only player on the field for a couple minutes as players from both teams showed deference to one of the game’s all-time greats.

Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan hit a sharp grounder that Cabrera stopped without needing to move too far to make an unassisted out, setting off another roar from the crowd and triggering a wave of emotions for him.

Cabrera covered his heart with his cap and looked up at a blue sky.

His children came onto the field along with Tigers manager A.J. Hinch to embrace him. After the entire team — including pitchers from the bullpen — hugged him, Cabrera used his right arm to wipe tears from his eyes.

Cabrera’s children — Isabella, Brisel and Christopher — each threw a ceremonial first pitch to their father before the game and his son introduced the 12-time All-Star as he walked to the batter’s box in the first.

The sold-out crowd, which included a few thousand people with standing-room only tickets, stood and roared each time Cabrera came to the plate.

Even after he struck out in his first two at-bats and hit a weak popup in his third, 41,425 fans cheered for one of the most popular players in Detroit professional sports history.

There was a lot to like.

Cabrera became Major League Baseball’s only Triple Crown winner since 1967 in 2012, when he was named AL MVP for the first of two straight years during a run of winning three straight batting titles and four consecutive division titles.

He joined Hank Aaron and Albert Pujols last year as the three players in baseball history with 3,000 hits, 500 homers and 600 doubles.

Atlanta Braves superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. called Cabrera “a Venezuelan baseball god.”

The 40-year-old Cabrera was mortal in recent years, struggling to stay healthy and falling well short of the spectacular numbers he had at the plate in his prime.

The Tigers kept the crowd happy early in the game, scoring one run each of the first three innings on Kerry Carpenter’s single, Javier Baez’s double and Andy Ibanez’s base hit.

Cleveland cut the deficit to 3-1 in the fourth on Brayan Rocchi’s groundout and pulled within two runs on Tyler Freeman’s solo shot to left in the fifth. In the home half, Matt Vierling restored Detroit’s three-run lead with a two-run homer.

Up and down

The Tigers (78-84) won 12 more games than they did a year ago and secured second place, their best finish in the AL Central since 2016 when they had their last winning record.

Cleveland (76-86) slipped from its 92-win season from a year ago, when it earned a spot in the postseason for the sixth time in Francona’s 11 seasons.

For the record

Eduardo Rodriguez (13-9) gave up two runs — one earned — on four hits and a walk while striking out five in what might have been his Detroit finale. The left-hander can opt out of his contract’s final three seasons to become a free agent, giving up $49 million in guaranteed salary and potentially making much more on the market.

Lucas Giolito (1-4) allowed five runs on seven hits and four walks.

Up next

Cleveland and Detroit both begin 2024 spring training with games on Feb. 24.