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Miguel Cabrera makes his first spring start

LAKELAND, Fla. -- He wasn't in Aruba. He wasn't in Maui. He wasn't touring the Pyramids or the great museums of Europe. But to Miguel Cabrera, not playing baseball was pretty much the same thing.

"It was good, because I was resting," America's preeminent batsmith announced Sunday. "I was on vacation."

But on Sunday afternoon, at a little after 1 p.m., Miguel Cabrera's vacation was over. Nearly a month after he pulled into spring training, and just 15 days before Opening Day, Miggy was back where he belonged. Back in his favorite place on earth.

The batter's box.

"Now I'm working," he said, flashing a smile almost as wide as the Florida Turnpike. "Back to work."

On a huge day in the life of the Detroit Tigers, Cabrera and his middle-of-the-lineup co-conspirator, Victor Martinez, both made it into the lineup Sunday for the first time all spring. Cabrera DH'd in a split-squad home game against the Washington Nationals, and went 1-for-3, with two strikeouts. Martinez also DH'd, in a split-squad road game against the Atlanta Braves and went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and two ground ball outs.

And for the first time, Cabrera sounded reasonably confident that he and Martinez would both be ready when the Tigers host the Minnesota Twins on Opening Day.

"I'm positive we're going to be there," he said. "Hopefully, we can be 100 percent."

But Cabrera also hedged on that, because ultimately, it's not his call. Not when there are great medical minds and great baseball minds above him to make that decision.

"I mean, if my foot is OK enough, I'm going to be ready," he said. "I think my foot and my ankle, they're going to tell [me] if I'm going to play the Opening Day."

Well, he's mostly right. It will be his foot, his ankle and, last but not exactly least, his team. And his team clearly isn't ready to make that official yet.

"If there's no setbacks and he's able to play the majority of games we have left [this spring], I feel like it's better than 50-50 at this point," said his manager, Brad Ausmus, after watching him Sunday.

But you'll note the caution in that assessment, especially considering it came on a day when the manager had actually watched his MVP play. It's a long way from "better than 50-50" to "100 percent certain." So that tells us that, as much as Brad Ausmus would love to spend his afternoon on Opening Day watching both Cabrera and Martinez work their magic, he needs to see more. A lot more.

"Assuming there's no injury risk, there's not many people I'd rather have in the lineup than Victor and Miggy," Ausmus said. "But we have to make sure. And we haven't gotten there yet. We have to make sure that Miggy can play first base. ...

"Right now, Miggy looks good. He says he feels good. But I can't guarantee he'll be ready for Opening Day. The important thing is, we want to have him for as much of the season as possible.

"I'd love to be able to tell you that he's going to be 100 percent, that he's going to go 4-for-4 on Opening Day," Ausmus went on. "But I don't have that crystal ball."

Nevertheless the view on March 22 looked a lot more scenic than it did on Oct. 24, when Cabrera had surgery to remove bone spurs and bone chips from his right ankle, and to repair a previously undetected fractured navicular bone at the top of the same foot.

For weeks afterward, the most upbeat picture the Tigers painted of his recovery was that they hoped to have him back "close to Opening Day." And clearly, that's still their mindset. But Cabrera's mood Sunday seemed to paint a different picture.

He looked up from a postgame pingpong duel and noticed a group of reporters hovering. On most days, Cabrera is a man of few words. On this day, he laughed and said, shockingly: "I can do an interview while I'm playing."

He then jovially ran through his afternoon, which started with two whiffs on sliders in his first two at-bats against Washington starter A.J. Cole, but ended happily with a single off left-hander Matt Thornton.

Asked if he was excited to be back, Cabrera joked: "First two at-bats, not too excited. Third at-bat, very good. I got a hit."

Despite the two strikeouts, Cabrera fouled off eight of the 13 pitches he swung at and ran two deep counts -- working a nine-pitch at-bat his first time up, and a six-pitch at-bat his last time up. But while that seemed like a sign, to outside observers, that his eye at the plate was good, Cabrera had a different view.

"Timing good," he said, chuckling. "Eyes no good."

But you don't need an eye chart to know what it meant to his teammates to see the names of both Cabrera and Martinez on a lineup card. Finally.

"We've played all these games this spring, and we haven't had our two best hitters on the field," said Tigers catcher Alex Avila. "So I think everybody's excited to see them get back in there."

"I think adding Miggy to any lineup would be pretty energizing," said Justin Verlander. "Best hitter on the planet."

And make no mistake about it. The men he plays with love seeing this man hit. And that never changes -- even if it's just a spring training game in the third week of March.

"I've been watching him for seven years already," Avila said. "I always hit in the group after him [in batting practice]. So I still come in early and watch his last few rounds before our round starts, just because everything -- his mechanics and his swing -- are so pure that you look at it and like, if you were going to teach a guy how to hit, there it is.

"Except that he's Miguel Cabrera, and you can't teach that."