TORONTO — Incredulity spread through the Rogers Centre stands like wildfire as Melky Cabrera sprinted through first base. It was the first inning and the Blue Jays left fielder had just rolled over a 95 mph cutter from Yankees starter Michael Pineda, bouncing it to short where Derek Jeter calmly collected it and lobbed it towards first.
It was the same type of groundball that would have gone as an easy out for Cabrera last season, but what caused such alarm under the roof Saturday afternoon was that Cabrera beat it out. He ran smoothly and surefootedly towards first with actual pace and vigour, something Blue Jays fans haven’t seen since Cabrera arrived in town a year ago.
“No, no, no—there’s no way that happens last season,” Cabrera said after the game with a laugh. “With all the tightness that I felt in my hamstrings and my knees and my back—I would’ve had no chance to beat that out. Last year on plays like that it felt like someone was holding me down by the waist.”
What caused such tremendous discomfort last season, and limited Cabrera’s mobility to near ridiculous levels, was a benign tumor the size of a walnut attached to his lower spine. It began affecting him in spring training, and although he was able to play with the tumor for half a season, it severely diminished his abilities. He swung the bat entirely with his upper body and ran in the outfield like his cleats were full of ball bearings. In 88 games he hit just three home runs, the lowest total of his career. This season it’s taken him just six games to go deep twice.
“I feel great. It’s completely different from last year,” said Cabrera, who had the tumor removed last August, leaving behind a four-inch vertical scar straight down the middle of his lower back. “I feel good at the plate, I feel good in the field. I feel good to be producing again.”
After his two hits Saturday in a 4-0 win over the Yankees, the 29-year-old has hit safely in each of the Blue Jays first six games. His nine hits lead the American League. This comes after a spring training when Cabrera led all of baseball with 30 hits in just 74 at-bats.
“Melky’s always been able to hit—that’s the bottom line,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “He’s had his issues but through all that he’s always hit.”
The issues include not only the tumor but also a 50-game 2012 suspension—in the midst of a season when he was leading the majors in hits and batting .346/.390/.516—after he tested positive for high levels of testosterone. Cabrera admitted to using “a substance I should not have used” and sat out the remainder of the year. He signed with Toronto during the subsequent off-season and reported for spring training looking to move forward. But then the tumor happened.
So, that makes two straight seasons when Cabrera’s results cannot be taken at face value. He’s likely not as good as he was in 2012 when he was using performance enhancers, and certainly not as bad as he was in 2013 when he played through incessant pain.
That means 2014—a contract year—carries a great deal of importance for the Dominican switch hitter. And so far he’s been better than anyone expected. Cabrera worked out extensively with fellow Blue Jay outfielder Jose Bautista in Tampa Bay this winter, flipping tires, pushing cars and running sprints with a parachute attached to his back. He’s come into this season, his ninth as a full time major leaguer, in noticeably better shape than he was when Blue Jays fans last saw him. And through Toronto’s first two series he’s played like a man looking to prove a point—although he’ll tell you he’s just trying to stay focused on the here and now.
“It has nothing to do with making up for last year,” Cabrera said. “Last year I had a lot of problems, but that was all because of the tumor. There’s nothing I can do about that. Today, I feel great. I’m not in pain anymore. I’m moving forward.”
And what else can he do? Cabrera’s career has been a curious one over the past two years, with mysterious injuries and doping incidents defining his time in the game. Much of what has happened to him has occurred away from the field, and a language barrier coupled with his reluctance to talk to the media has left fans with little insight into his thought process throughout.
But through six games he’s been the Blue Jays best hitter and fans are undoubtedly happy about that. Cabrera is too.
“I’m just thankful for the opportunity I’m getting to play every day. That’s been the key to my success. It makes me feel a lot better at the plate,” Cabrera said. “I just want to continue feeling like this.”