DETROIT -- You can line up a devastating rotation that buys strikeouts by the barrel and makes a potent Red Sox lineup a near-nightly no-hit threat.
You can juggle the lineup and momentarily make the manager look like a mastermind.
You can watch Jose Iglesias run down every ball in sight, squeeze every last ounce of effectiveness out of a somewhat-thin bullpen, energize a raucous Comerica Park crowd with the persistent threat of the big inning.
But what you can't do, if you're the Detroit Tigers, is completely account for the difference between Miguel Cabrera with two good legs and Miguel Cabrera with zero good legs. And the reality of the hobbling Cabrera's health caught up with the Tigers in a big way in their 4-3 loss in Game 5 of this American League Championship Series.
Between the Tom Brookens-induced baserunning blunder ultimately borne out of Cabrera's compromised condition in the first, the costly error made by Miggy at third base in the second and the altered swing mechanics and selectivity that limited Cabrera's clout in the clutch yet again in a pivotal seventh-inning at-bat, we are witnessing merely a fragment of the Tigers' MVP.
"I think everybody knows," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, "he's playing under some really, really tough conditions right now."
And that puts the Tigers -- a team built with but one October goal in mind -- in a really, really tough spot.
Don't get me wrong. Prince Fielder plays a role -- a huge one -- in the Tigers' 3-2 ALCS deficit, which forces them into a Fenway do-or-die. The boo birds came out for Fielder on Thursday night, and the sound was as ugly as his postseason stat line -- 9-for-37 with just one extra-base hit. Boston's savvy shifts and pitching prowess executed against Fielder have made him an all-too-noticeable non-factor in this series. In the 14 games Cabrera missed because of injuries this season, Fielder accounted for 18.3 percent of the Tigers' RBIs.
In this ALCS? Zero percent.
Yeah, that's noticeable, all right.
But Fielder is a guy frustratingly living up to his previously poor postseason track record. His struggles are of his own doing.
Cabrera is a guy who has been physically robbed of his innate ability to lift a team and a town on his shoulders. His struggles are just plain brutal to behold if you prefer your Octobers not be impacted by injury reports.
Cabrera won't make excuses. For one, because he doesn't need to (whether it's a sports hernia or some other strain, we all know he's got more than the usual amount of late-season soreness), and also because he doesn't want to.
"I don't want to talk about this," he said. "I've got to play my best game. It's no time to complain, it's no time to feel sorry about how you're feeling right now."
Brookens didn't take full account of how Cabrera is feeling in the first. With Cabrera at second, Fielder at first and two outs against Jon Lester, Jhonny Peralta grounded a single to left. Brookens' initial instinct was to wave Cabrera home, but then he changed course when Jonny Gomes fielded the ball cleanly.
Problem is, throwing Cabrera's engine in reverse is hard enough when he's healthy. In this situation, his body is particularly averse to starts and stops.
"With Cabrera right now, you have to be cautious," Leyland said. "It's a touchy one, but with Miguel's status right now, you pretty much almost have to play safety first."
Cabrera was meat by a mile on the play at the plate, and you could see him wincing in pain afterward.
The very next inning, after Mike Napoli's gargantuan solo shot put the Red Sox on the board with the game's first run, Cabrera, lacking even more range and agility than usual, misplayed a Gomes bouncer that kicked to his right side. The error opened the opportunity for Boston to push two more runs across before the inning was over.
"It was a bad hop," Cabrera said. "Nothing you can do with a bad hop. That's baseball, that's part of the game. Don't be afraid to make errors. If I was afraid to make an error, they'd put me on the bench."
The seventh inning comes along, and now the Tigers are down, 4-2, but threatening. They've got runners at first and third and none out, with Cabrera and Fielder coming up to the plate. A dream scenario that, much like the eighth inning in Game 3, turned nightmarish. As was the case in Game 3, Junichi Tazawa got Cabrera to swing at a pitch out of the zone, and Cabrera grounded it into a run-scoring but rally-killing double play. Fielder then grounded out, as well, ushering in a chorus of boos.
Fielder's sapped power is one thing. But even if you understand the physical issues at play with Cabrera, it's nonetheless jarring to watch him chase pitches he's in no position to do damage with. It's certainly jarring to the Tigers' offensive pursuit.
In some measure, maybe the Tigers put themselves in this prickly position by not giving Cabrera more time off his feet in September. Their AL Central lead on the Indians and Royals seemed secure, and every swap and signing made over the last couple years had been made with one goal -- the World Series -- in mind. Rival executives wondered why the Tigers would jeopardize that by making him play through pain down the stretch.
It is, however, awfully hard to keep the tireless Cabrera off his feet, and the Indians' ridiculous run at season's end -- a run that put them within a single game of the Tigers in the final standings -- demonstrated that you can't take anything for granted in this game.
Still, Cabrera didn't do the Tigers much good in September, and the hard truth is that, because he hasn't had adequate time to let his injuries heal (and understand, "adequate time," in this instance, could be several weeks, not several days), he's not doing them nearly as much good as they need right now.
Cabrera's hip bothered him for some time, and the physical issues spread to the abdominal and groin areas. There were several stretches in which Cabrera, ordinarily a lineup lock, missed several games, but the truest tipping point came when the calendar flipped from August to September. Cabrera exited an Aug. 30 game against the Indians with what was described as abdominal irritation. When he returned, four days later, he went 0-for-4, and thus began a forgettable month for the greatest hitter in the game. Prior to September, the Tigers averaged an MLB-best 5.10 runs per game. From Sept. 1 on, they averaged just 3.73.
This was no coincidence, of course.
The beauty of a player like Cabrera is that, even at a fraction of his usual effectiveness, there is always inherent hope that he can lift his team with a single swing. That hope has persisted, especially after he launched home runs -- with a retooled, two-handed swing -- in Game 5 of the Division Series of the A's and Game 2 of this ALCS against Boston.
Heading to Boston, with Max Scherzer and, potentially, Justin Verlander on the mound, the Tigers will continue to hold out hope that Cabrera has those big swings in him.
"You've got to go out and play with your heart," Cabrera said. "That's it."
Is that enough?