DETROIT — Miguel Cabrera raised his right arm as he rounded first base, a surprised grin on his face.
These days, every swing by the Detroit slugger seems like a potential home run, but the reigning Triple Crown winner had to admit this one was a little lucky. Cabrera’s drive looked like a deep flyout until it popped out of an outfielder’s glove and over the wall in Cleveland.
When you’re going good, you’re going good — and nobody in baseball is having a season quite like Cabrera’s.
“He’s probably leaving little doubt to anybody who the best hitter is,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “You don’t see what you’re seeing very often.”
Cabrera became baseball’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years in 2012, and now he’s off to a terrific start this year. He started the weekend with a batting average not too far south of .400 and 55 RBIs. No player has won the Triple Crown in back-to-back years, and only Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby have done it twice in a career. It’s too early to tell whether Cabrera will make another serious bid, but there’s little doubt that Detroit fans — and players — are watching a gifted hitter in his prime.
“When he’s up and I’m on base, it’s like HD,” said outfielder Torii Hunter, who signed with the Tigers in the offseason as a free agent. “When I’m on the bench, I’m watching no matter if I struck out or grounded out or popped put, I’m still watching him. I’ve been playing 17 years and I’m learning from him.”
Even when the Tigers lose, Cabrera can put on quite a show, like when he hit three homers last weekend in an 11-8 defeat at Texas.
Cabrera can be a bit reticent when asked to talk about himself and his success, but these days, the numbers speak for themselves. He didn’t emerge as a Triple Crown threat until late last season, when his terrific finish lifted Detroit to a second straight AL Central title. Now, he’s picked up where he left off.
His RBI total can be partially attributed to the lineup he’s in. When healthy, Austin Jackson is one of the game’s better leadoff hitters. Hunter bats second, one spot in front of Cabrera, and he’s been on base quite a bit, giving the middle of the order chances to drive in runs.
“Everybody — it’s not only Torii,” Cabrera said. “We’re here together for one reason — win games. Trying to win the division.”
That’s why Cabrera doesn’t seem frustrated when an intentional walk costs him another chance for a homer or an RBI.
“Get on base, try to make something happen,” Cabrera said. “That’s it.”
During that three-homer game against the Rangers, Cabrera was intentionally walked with runners on first and second, a rarity for any hitter. (The move didn’t work. Prince Fielder — an accomplished power hitter in his own right — followed with a bases-loaded double.)
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire doesn’t enjoy putting a hitter on first, but he wants his pitchers to work around Cabrera in certain situations.
“Unintentional-intentional, I like that one better,” Gardenhire said. “Prince is going to have to get it done, which is ugly in itself because he gets it done an awful lot too. But we know Cabrera’s the man right now.”
The Twins showed up in Detroit for a four-game series that started Thursday. In the first inning of the first game — only a few hours after Gardenhire had said Minnesota’s pitchers needed to be careful — Cabrera hit a two-run homer. It was the fourth straight game he’d gone deep.
“You can’t pitch to him,” Hunter said. “He can hit the inside pitch. He can hit the outside pitch. He can hit the up and in. He can go down the line to right field or down the line to left field. He can go all over the field. And he’s smart. He’s a smart hitter. He’s going to battle at the plate.”
On Wednesday, Cleveland center fielder Michael Bourn knocked Cabrera’s fly ball over the wall for a two-run homer in Detroit’s 11-7 win. Cabrera was fortunate on that play, but he hits plenty of home runs that clear the outfield by healthy margins.
Cabrera is contending for a second straight MVP award and third straight batting title. The latter would be a remarkable accomplishment for a right-handed hitter who doesn’t have enough speed to leg out many infield hits.
Cabrera began his major league career with Florida in 2003 — a 20-year-old phenom who helped the Marlins win the World Series that year. Thanks to that early start, he has a chance to join some pretty lofty company on the home run list. Cabrera was 30 years, 35 days old Thursday, when he hit his 335th career homer. That’s only seven fewer than Hank Aaron had at that age, according to STATS.
Also, according to STATS, Williams, Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx are the only players with 500 homers and a career average of at least .320. Cabrera’s career average was at .321 after Thursday’s game, so that’s another exclusive group he could join if he keeps this up.
The road hasn’t always been easy for Cabrera. His arrest before the start of the 2011 season — and subsequent no contest plea to drunken driving — was a jarring reminder that potential offers no guarantees. Since then, Cabrera has received generally high marks for his maturity both on and off the field, and the possibilities again seem limitless.
“There aren’t many of those guys,” Leyland said. “They see things different than other guys. They figure things out different and they have a better feel for what guys are trying to do to them from at-bat to at-bat. I can’t explain it. That’s probably why there have only been a few great ones like that.”
AP Sports Writer Tom Withers contributed to this report.