Sure, he signed a record bonus as a 16-year-old in 1999, then rocketed through the minors — called up after 69 Double-A games in 2003 — to debut at 20 years, 63 days. And, yes, he homered in that first game, delivering a storybook walk-off homer in the 11th inning (after going 0-for-4 in regulation) on June 20, 2003.
But after that?
In his first five big-league seasons, he won a World Series (complete with a signature homer off Roger Clemens), received MVP votes every season, made four consecutive All-Star squads and won a pair of Silver Slugger awards (at outfield in 2005 and third base in 2006).
OK, OK, hindsight suggests that perhaps he was destined for greatness. And it all started in the teal and black pinstripes of the Florida Marlins. Here, then, are five of his greatest games as a Marlin:
BY THE NUMBERS: Rounding up the final week of Miguel Cabrera's milestones
July 1, 2003: Miggy makes his adjustments
Marlins 20, Braves 1: Just 11 games in, Miguel Cabrera was still not quite in sync with big-league pitching. He entered a Tuesday-night matchup with the NL East-leading Braves mired in an 0-for-17 slump. That ended quickly with the first pitch he saw leading off the second inning in Miami; he crushed it to deep center — 440 feet — to give the Marlins a 2-1 lead. Four innings later, he smacked a 2-2 pitch to left-center for a double, his second hit of the night, then followed that the next inning with another double off another 2-2 pitch.
Finally, he wrapped up his night with a blast to left-center on the first pitch he saw in the eighth inning for a two-run homer. The final tally: Four extra-base hits (tying a Marlins franchise record) in six at-bats with four runs scored, four RBIs and 12 total bases. So what made the difference for the 20-year-old? An adjustment to move closer to the plate, and, of course, an end to previous mistakes: “The last five games, I was swinging at bad pitches,” Cabrera told the Miami Herald.
April 13, 2004: Party in Puerto Rico
Marlins 5, Expos 0: After finishing fifth in 2003 NL Rookie of the Year voting (despite playing just 87 games), Cabrera picked up where he left off, with three homers and a double in the first six games of the season. But he hit a new level in the Marlins’ first road game — four days before his 21st birthday: In San Juan, Puerto Rico, Cabrera crushed solo homers in the first (the opposite way) and third (pulled deep to left against the wind) innings, both off 0-2 from veteran Claudio Vargas. The Expos’ adopted home, Hiram Bithorn Stadium, was known for short fences — even after an offseason adjustment — but Cabrera’s blasts would have been gone in any park.
Between the homers, Cabrera added an RBI single (pulled on a line to left) in the third; he then finished his night by working a full-count walk in the eighth inning. The performance impressed manager Jack McKeon, who had more than 40 years of MLB experience at the time: “He’s one of those unique guys you see come along once in a while,” McKeon told reporters. “Pitch him outside, and he’ll hit it out to right. Pitch him inside, and he’ll hit it out to left. Pitch him down the middle, and he’ll hit it over the center-field fence.”
Starting pitcher Brad Penny, who had just four years of MLB experience was more succinct: “I’m going to be watching TV one day and say, ‘I played with that guy,’ “ said the righty, who was teammates in Miami with Cabrera for 2½ more months and then again for the 2011 season in Detroit.
April 29, 2005: Going the extra mile
Marlins 6, Phillies 4: For the first decade of the Marlins’ existence, they had just one game in which a player put up four extra-base hits. And then, in the span of 668 days, they added two more — both by Cabrera. His second career game with four extra-base hits started simply enough, with a double into the left-center gap in the first inning.
In the third inning, Cabrera launched the fifth pitch he saw in the third inning from righty Randy Wolf 435 feet to left, dropping it in the upper deck at Citizens Bank Park for his lone RBI. Miggy was unimpressed with the blast, telling reporters, “I don’t care how far the home runs go. A home run is a home run. That happens sometimes when you feel good and you swing the bat good.”
Cabrera continued to swing the bat good in the fifth, pounding another fifth-pitch from Wolf to deep center for another double. Following a flyout to center in the seventh inning, Cabrera came to the plate against another reliever, veteran righty Tim Worrell. This time, Cabrera didn’t wait; he lined a shot to left and chugged into second base with his third double of the night.
June 23, 2005: Gobbling up the RBIs
Marlins 8, Braves 0: On a night in Atlanta where left-hander Dontrelle Willis got the headlines for a five-hit shutout that included a bunt single down the third-base line, Cabrera quietly went to work on the Braves staff, piling up six RBIs — one short of the Marlins’ franchise record, and doubly impressive considering the Marlins hadn’t scored in 24 previous innings (including 18 in Atlanta). Cabrera’s first RBI, snapping the shutout streak, was the hardest: a two-out home run in the first inning to left-center to give Willis all the runs he needed. After a groundout in the fourth, Cabrera came up with a runner on first and one out; this time, he picked up two RBIs, on an 0-1 homer to deep left.
His Marlins teammates kept making things easier on him, though; in the seventh, Cabrera came up with runners on second and third and two outs, only to send the first pitch he saw back up the middle on the ground to score both. In the ninth, and the game well in hand at 7-0, Cabrera came to the plate with one out and a runner on second. Again, a swing on the first pitch, and, again, a ground-ball single, though this one went to the opposite field. Cabrera’s final totals: 4-for-5 with two homers and three runs scored. But Cabrera, always the team player, downplayed his night: “The numbers don’t mean nothing,” Cabrera told reporters. “The wins mean everything.”
April 28, 2007: Perfect in Philly
Marlins 11, Phillies 5: After three straight All-Star appearances, two straight Silver Slugger wins and back-to-back top-five finishes in MVP voting, Cabrera was arguably established as the greatest hitter in the young franchise’s history. How young? Willis, the starter again this night at Citizens Bank Park in Philly, became the franchise leader in career innings, with 854⅓. Meanwhile, Cabrera was steady again, going 5-for-5 — the franchise’s fourth five-hit game in 15 seasons — with a homer, four singles and three runs scored. All despite a sore oblique that led Willis to dub him, “half man, half amazing.” The Marlins starter continued, “This is my (fifth year) playing with him. He’s a Hall of Fame guy. If he can do this with half a rib, imagine what he can do if he is healthy.”
Cabrera picked up his first single with two on and no outs in the first inning, dropping a liner the other way into short right to load the bases. In the second, Cabrera continued to go the other way off starter Adam Eaton with another liner to short right on the first pitch of the at-bat. The fourth inning brought another single off Eaton, this one coming on a two-out, 2-0 pitch and zipping on a line to left — too hard for teammate Hanley Ramirez, who was thrown out trying to score from second. The sixth featured a different pitcher (Francisco Rosario), but a similar result: a two-out liner to short center. Finally, in the eighth — with the Marlins holding a 10-5 lead — Cabrera delivered the topper, crushing the first pitch of the frame to deep right-center for a solo home run. The five-hit night raised his batting average to .364, though Cabrera said afterward, “I don’t worry about the numbers in the past. I just worry about what I do every day. It’s a good park to hit, but I don’t worry about hitting home runs. I just did the same thing I do every day. I feel good, and the team is playing good right now.”
Unfortunately for Cabrera and the Marlins, it wouldn’t stay that way: the young slugger cooled off — all the way to a .313/.395/.546 line the rest of the way —and the Marlins plummeted from one game under .500 to a 71-91 final record. Willis posted a 5.13 ERA to finish the season, just as he was entering his final year of arbitration. Fearing a big payday for him — and for Cabrera the year after — the penny-pinching Marlins opted not to wait and opened the bidding for Cabrera (with the winner having to take Willis’ contract, as well) at baseball’s winter meetings.
The winners? The Detroit Tigers, five years removed from 119 losses, two years removed from a magical World Series run … and run by two of the execs — Dave Dombrowski and Al Avila — who’d brought Cabrera into the Florida fold so many years ago.
THURSDAY’S PART 2: Master of the Motor City …
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Miguel Cabrera's biggest games: 5 days that defined him in Florida