Cabrera can’t run, but he can swing

Miguel Cabrera looked like an arthritic retiree, dragging his right leg through the infield dirt around third base. He limped. He paused. He hunched over and rested his hands on his knees, the fingers of his mitt splayed open to support his 240-pound frame.

It was the top of the sixth inning Friday night, and Cabrera delivered a pep talk to one of the most important contributors in the Detroit Tigers’ pursuit of a playoff berth.

“I was talking to my ankle,” he said. “I said, ‘Let’s go.’”

Later, after a series opener with the Chicago White Sox that was more arduous than artful, Cabrera waddled off the field as if auditioning to be an Olympic race walker. He had, by my count, missed opportunities to record five outs during the course of the night – two popups that landed out of reach, a throwing error, a double-play grounder he didn’t charge, a liner that his ankle wouldn’t permit him to snare.

And yet the Tigers scored a crucial 7-4 victory. Cabrera was the star, going 3-for-4 with a home run and double as fans at Comerica Park chanted “M-V-P!” He did it all on one good leg, with an ankle so badly sprained that Tigers fans watching at home surely broke out their own icepacks in solidarity.

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard for the Tigers. Coming off an appearance in last year’s American League Championship Series, they were going to make short work of the overmatched Central Division and skate into October. Cabrera? Prince Fielder? Justin Verlander? Please. Everyone picked them to make the playoffs.

But it is Labor Day weekend, and they are not in first place. Even after Friday’s win, they trail the White Sox by two games. Friday afternoon, Tigers manager Jim Leyland uttered something few could have conceived during spring training. “Hopefully,” he said of the division race, “it’ll be a dogfight until the end.”

Oddly enough, the reasons the Tigers have struggled (relative to expectations) are the same reasons they can redeem themselves in September – thus avoiding company with the Angels and Marlins as the most egregious disappointments of 2012.

Let’s start with Cabrera. After Thursday’s sweep-clinching defeat in Kansas City, some locals were upset about his game-ending double-play grounder – specifically, whether he had appropriately exerted himself while rrrrruuuuunnnniiiiinnnnggg to first. The grumbling was short-lived. Even in his diminished state, Cabrera remains capable of hitting displays such as Friday’s. The MVP award – which he doesn’t like talking about – is attainable, especially if the Tigers rally to win the division.

On this particular day, his goal was much simpler: Cabrera needed to figure out a way to swing through the pain. So he worked with hitting coach Lloyd McClendon during batting practice on a way to stay more balanced.

“Today, during BP and extra work, I finally started to feel comfortable,” Cabrera said. “I didn’t put too much weight on my right leg. It worked. Today, it worked. Hopefully, tomorrow it works – and the next day, and the rest of the season.”

In the process, Cabrera delivered a subtle message to his teammates – the way Victor Martinez did so often last year. Cabrera has played 130 of 131 games this year. Fielder has been at his post for all 131. Their reliability sets an example while fostering confidence among others in the room.

Yet, they can’t do it alone. Or, more accurately, Austin Jackson and the two of them can’t do it alone. The three-man weave is fine for basketball practice, less so in baseball games. That’s why the Tigers are in second place.

Last year, while Martinez was healthy and Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila were having career years, the Tigers drove home 200 runs between the fifth and sixth spots. Entering Friday, those same stations had accounted for only 104 RBIs.

The contrast was just as stark when looking at this season’s OPS in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth spots, respectively: .973 (Cabrera), .930 (Fielder), .675 (oops) and .644 (oops again).

So it was fitting that Friday’s decisive runs came off the bat of Delmon Young – the No. 5 hitter.

“It’s important,” Young said. “Prince’s and Miggy’s backs are going to get sore, trying to carry a whole team all year. The rest of us have to contribute.”

And they can. Young, Peralta, Avila and Brennan Boesch have, as a group, underperformed this season – especially in comparison with the White Sox, who have had valuable production from the fifth and sixth spots. But that can be rectified over the remaining 31 games.

The same is true for Tigers right-hander Doug Fister, who looked out of sync while laboring through 101 pitches in five innings Friday night. He’s not the pitcher he was last year, because he’s not as healthy as he was last year. He’s had two stints on the disabled list because of strained muscles around his ribcage. He missed his last start with a right groin injury.

The Tigers went 9-2 in Fister’s starts last year after he arrived in a midseason trade with the Seattle Mariners. This year, they are just 9-11 – or 11-16, when figuring in how his replacements fared. From seven games above .500 to two games below is a huge swing – far greater than the distance between the White Sox and Tigers in the standings. Fister isn’t solely responsible for that, of course, but he does have the potential to be a difference-maker over the season’s final month.

The White Sox, in many respects, are a more compelling story than the Tigers. Their general manager, Kenny Williams, has been rewarded for his faith in first-year manager Robin Ventura – whom Leyland went out of his way to praise in his postgame comments Friday. Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Kevin Youkilis are among the Chicago players enjoying rebirths.

But the Tigers also know this is the time of year when superstars stand out – even if they wobble.

“My leg hurts – not my hands,” Cabrera said with a smile. “My hands and my mind, they’re good.”