ANAHEIM, Calif. – Rafael Belliard spoke so softly you'd have barely heard him if the Detroit Tigers' clubhouse was quiet, which it was not Tuesday afternoon.
He waved a fungo bat like a pendulum a few inches above the floor, felt the bat in his fingertips, and claimed he'd hardly ever seen a hitter like Miguel Cabrera(notes). Belliard was a big leaguer for 17 years, for most of his 20s and 30s. Now he's the infield coach for the Tigers, so he broke in that fungo bat turning Cabrera into a first baseman – one two-hopper at a time – over the past couple seasons.
He nodded toward Cabrera, who at 26 has won a home run title, been an All-Star four times and a World Series champion once, who has 201 home runs already and a lifetime .313 batting average, and currently can be found dragging the Tigers' offense into the postseason, one line drive at a time.
"Great players," Belliard said, "they have that little something special."
He hit the first syllable hard on "special," granting Cabrera a place with some of the best hitters he'd ever seen. Cabrera reminded him of Jim Rice, he said, or maybe Andres Galarraga, perhaps a little bit of Tony Armas(notes).
This one has the face of a child, and to many Cabrera is only beginning to mature. His body has thinned out, so he looks like a ballplayer and not someone eating his way toward a long career as a designated hitter. And when it once appeared he'd never become even a reasonable first baseman, Cabrera hovered around Belliard, and he sought out Galarraga, his Venezuelan countryman, during the past World Baseball Classic. Galarraga told him to "dance lightly" around the bag, to keep his feet moving, and the lessons from the former Gold Glover (and Belliard teammate) stuck.
"We spent a lot of time together at first base," said Cabrera, who'd grown out of third base. "He told me to always dance."
With that, and a wicked smile, he stood in front of his locker and shuffled his feet as though jumping an invisible rope.
"Like this," he said, laughing. "If you move your feet, you can play a good first base."
All of which is a nice measure of Cabrera's commitment. But what Cabrera really does is hit, and with the best in the game, which is what makes him special and the Tigers' offense remotely capable.
Even with Cabrera in the middle of it, manager Jim Leyland's lineup ranks near the bottom of the American League in runs, average, on-base percentage and whatever else you'd choose to quantify it. About a month ago, Leyland moved Cabrera from third to fourth in the order, and lately there's been a lot of Clete Thomas(notes) batting third and Carlos Guillen(notes) batting fifth, except for a couple nights now Magglio Ordonez(notes) has hit in front of Cabrera and Aubrey Huff(notes) behind him.
So the Tigers scored 10 runs against the Angels on Monday night, when Cabrera hit his 26th home run and drove in five runs. And they scored five more against the Angels on Tuesday night, when Cabrera hit his 27th home run and drove in two more runs. He's batting .345 and the RBIs are starting to come, 82 and counting, and after a slow summer – he has nearly 50 fewer plate appearances with runners in scoring position than, say, Mark Teixeira(notes) does – it appears Cabrera will reach 100 RBIs for a sixth consecutive season.
Waiting on Ordonez and Guillen and, lately, Brandon Inge(notes) and Curtis Granderson(notes) and Marcus Thames(notes), it'll have to do. Because while the Tigers finally have their pitching together, certainly on the starting end of things, they're going to need to score some runs, so they're going to need Cabrera first and foremost.
"When he doesn't give at-bats away he's as good as it gets," Leyland said. "He's still in the process of learning how not to give them away. But, he's getting there. People just don't realize what a smart player he is. He's a very bright baseball player."
To that end, Cabrera has led the league in batting (.387) and on-base percentage (.456) since the All-Star break, and Angels' pitchers played along by flipping breaking balls to Cabrera's bat barrel for two whole nights. It's why the Angels are flawed and why it is unwise to surmise one's offense reborn by a couple games in Anaheim, but, say this: Given imprecise sliders, Cabrera did not miss them, and the Tigers piled on.
"I'm hoping we're about to break out for these coming six weeks," Leyland said.
If so, Cabrera will lead them. As a young man in Venezuela, Cabrera followed Galarraga, of course, but also the Manhattan-raised Manny Ramirez(notes), and in five seasons playing for the Marlins, Cabrera came to admire a hard-hitting cog of the Big Red Machine, Tony Perez.
"That's why I like RBI," Cabrera said. "Because of them. But, also, if you produce, get your RBI, that means your team is scoring runs."
"I had a lot of opportunities in the first half when I didn't do my job," he said. "I don't like excuses. Right now I'm more relaxed. I feel more comfortable. And now we need it. We need to stop thinking about it. We've just got to go."
Yeah, he'll be waiting.