Evan Longoria acknowledges that Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera is the most talented hitter in the game, someone he strives to be like.
So whenever the Rays play the Tigers, as they will the next three days at Comerica Park, Longoria will make sure to approach the reigning American League MVP to get his thoughts.
But though Longoria is a three-time All-Star and established as one of the game's top players, he said it can be tough to understand the mind of a "genius," and Cabrera currently has no peer.
"He's an incredible, incredible hitter," Longoria said. "He has the ability to cover every pitch, which nobody in this game can do, except for him. And he has that ability to never go cold. It's like every time I see him in the box, I feel like he's going to hit the ball 500 feet. He's really fun to watch."
But, as Rays pitcher Alex Cobb says, Cabrera can be a nightmare to face.
Cabrera, 30, who last season was baseball's first Triple Crown winner in 45 years, enters today's series opener leading the AL in average (.367) and RBIs (65) and second in homers (17). The seven-time All-Star can become the first right-handed hitter to win three consecutive batting titles since Rogers Hornsby (1920-25) won six.
And with Cabrera boasting stunningly similar numbers — a career .320 hitter with 338 home runs — to Hank Aaron at the same age, there's a prevailing thought he may go down as one of the best hitters of all time.
"It's too soon to say that," Cabrera told the Detroit Free Press. "There are a lot of great players who have played this game. I respect that they did a lot for baseball. They got 3,000 hits and more than 500 home runs. They already did it."
The Rays say that what sets Cabrera apart is that he offers the complete package, a blend of strength and savvy, with the unique ability, and willingness, to hit to all fields.
He's extremely durable, appearing in 161 games each of the past two seasons and all 55 this year, and his power numbers are more impressive considering he plays in a pitcher's park.
Left-hander Matt Moore, scheduled to start tonight, said Cabrera can hit any pitch, but, as Cobb said, he's disciplined enough not to chase, boasting the "best eye in baseball."
"He never looks like he's in trouble, never," manager Joe Maddon said. "If he's ever been in a slump, I'd like to see the video, because I've never seen it."
Maddon said Cabrera has been at that level since he broke into the big leagues with the Marlins in 2003, helping them win the World Series.
Marlins manager Mike Redmond, who played with Cabrera on that team, said he has gotten even better because of his increased knowledge of his approach, the game and opposing pitchers, whom he can set up due to a seemingly photographic memory of his plate appearances.
Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon told the New York Times that Cabrera can identify subtle shifts in a pitcher's release point as well as the rotation of the ball, helping take away the guesswork many hitters have to rely upon.
So how do you pitch to Cabrera?
"You don't — you walk him," Redmond said, laughing. "I mean, really."
Maddon did just that during a four-game series in July 2010, walking Cabrera in three straight games even with first base occupied. The difference is, back then, Brennan Boesch hit behind Cabrera. Now, slugger Prince Fielder, a four-time All-Star with 271 career homers, offers some powerful protection and "makes it a lot more difficult," Maddon said.
Redmond said with Cabrera, you have to vary your patterns, as he doesn't miss the same pitch twice. Veteran reliever Jamey Wright said you always have to use a two-strike approach.
Cobb believes limiting the amount of runners on base in front of Cabrera and pitching him carefully is the formula for success, if there is such a thing.
"People have been trying to figure it out for years," Cobb said. "There is nothing."
Even while facing Cabrera, the Rays admire the exuberance the 6-foot-4, 240-pound star exudes.
"You can tell he loves to play the game and enjoys being out there," Longoria said. "Who wouldn't if you were that good?"
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]