DETROIT — Miguel Cabrera at 80 percent — or whatever he is — is better than most players at 100 percent.
He knows it, manager Jim Leyland knows it and his teammates certainly know it.
Without Cabrera, they have no chance of passing the Chicago White Sox and winning the Central Division.
Cabrera’s right ankle is bothering him, probably enough that if it were earlier in the season or the Tigers were out of the playoff race, he wouldn’t be playing.
“My leg hurts, not my hands,” Cabrera said. “My hands and my mind, they’re good.”
It was Cabrera who staked the Tigers to a 2-0 lead in the first inning Friday against the White Sox with a two-run homer off Jake Peavy.
It was Cabrera who lead off the fifth with a double, then tagged up and took third on Prince Fielder’s fly-out to center field. Although Cabrera didn’t score, it was a good example of the things he tries to do to help his team.
In the pivotal seventh inning, Cabrera followed Andy Dirks’ lead-off walk with a single. Cabrera eventually scored on Delmon Young’s bases-clearing double that snapped a 4-4 tie and gave the Tigers a 7-4 lead that proved to be the final score.
It was also Cabrera who committed two errors on defense, one in the first inning that didn’t hurt his team and another in the fourth that did.
“It’s hard (to play the field), but right now, I don’t have a choice,” Cabrera said. “I want to be out there. I want to help the team.
“We’re in a good race right now. We work for this all year, spring training, to get to this point and try to have a chance to go to the playoffs.
“It’s not an excuse for anything. It’s time to go out there and play hard as you can.”
There were some people who felt Cabrera didn’t go as hard as he could Thursday night in Kansas City on what proved to be a game-ending double play.
With one out, Cabrera hit a ground ball to second baseman Johnny Giavotella. Giavotella delivered the ball to shortstop Alcides Escobar, who fired to first baseman Eric Hosmer despite a hard slide by Dirks.
Leyland wasn’t buying the notion that Cabrera didn’t run as hard as he could.
“I think what happened was that ball he hit was real close to the bag,” Leyland said. “It was for sure probably a routine (double play), and the reason Dirks got there so fast was because there were guys on first and second.
“That was his first reaction when it was hit; his foot’s hurtin’. Then he realized what was going on, and he tried to get after it a little more. He wasn’t dogging it, contrary to what people want to make of it.
“It was so close to the bag. It looked like a simple boom-boom throw over. And you try to accelerate on something like that — it’s hard to come out of the box and accelerate.
“Watch him right now. It’s hard. I defend him 100 percent in that situation.”
Joaquin Benoit, who had the Tigers’ only 1-2-3 inning when he struck out the side in the eighth, is with Leyland in his assessment.
“(Thursday) night when we were coming home, I told him face to face, ‘I tip my hat to you,'” Benoit said. “The type of player he is, the situation where he is right now — he’s not becoming a free agent — he’s the type of guy who wants to be on the field no matter what.
“Seeing him, the way he’s playing, it’s unbelievable. You couldn’t ask for more from a guy as young as he is.”
Cabrera is also aware that his teammates follow his lead, which is another reason he’s pushing himself to keep playing.
Austin Jackson, who scored on Dirks’ double in the second after hitting a two-out triple, is one who’s taking cues from Cabrera.
“He could’ve easily sat it out, but he’s going out there, and putting up the effort,” Jackson said. “So when you see that, it just inspires you and makes you want to go out there and play hard for him.”
Cabrera also realizes that if Leyland makes him the designated hitter, that means someone like Young has to play the field, which takes away some of the lineup versatility.
“He’s playing in some pain, but he’s playing,” Leyland said. “This is certainly not the time to take him out.
“But at the same time, you know what? If I thought, at any time, I was doing something to hurt a player, I wouldn’t play him. I don’t work like that. There’s no point in hurting somebody. But obviously, the trainers are pretty confident he can get through it.”
At one point, Cabrera said he actually talked to his ankle, told it that it wasn’t hurting. He knows what’s at stake, not just in this series but in all of them now.
“Every game right now is big for us,” Cabrera said. “It’s a playoff game.
“My body feels good. My ankle not. But what am I going to do? Got to go out there and play. I want to play.”