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A Game of Inges

The former Detroit Tiger swings like a man with something to prove.

By 5.15.12

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Third baseman Brandon Inge of the Oakland A’s, who has toiled in the big leagues for a dozen seasons, just had the week of his life. In a five-game stretch, Inge hit .350 (7-for-20), with 4 homeruns and 16 RBI, including a walk-off grand slam homerun against the Toronto Blue Jays. In four of those five games, Inge had 4 RBI apiece -- the first MLB player to accomplish this feat since Lou Gehrig did late in the 1931 season. That year The Iron Horse set an American League record with 184 RBI.

And yet despite Inge’s extraordinary run, it wasn’t good enough to be named AL Player of the Week. For that very same week, Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton arguably had the best seven days of his big-league career. Between May 7 and 13, Hamilton hit .467 (14-for-30), with 8 homeruns and 18 RBI. Hamilton hit four homeruns in a single game against the Baltimore Orioles -- the first big-league player to hit the ball over the fence four times in one game since Carlos Delgado did it with the Blue Jays in 2003. As of this writing, Hamilton is leading both leagues in batting average, homeruns, and RBI (.402 BA, 18 HR and 44 RBI). Hamilton has a legitimate chance to become MLB’s first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastremszki did it with the Impossible Dream Boston Red Sox in 1967.

Now, no one would argue that Inge is the same caliber player as Hamilton, never mind Gehrig, who earned a Triple Crown during the 1934 season. Still, all things considered, it’s not bad for a guy who was released by the Detroit Tigers less than three weeks ago. Inge, who turns 35 on May 19, enjoyed a measure of revenge against the team that drafted him in 1998 by hitting two homeruns and driving in eight runs over two games.

Inge made his big-league debut with the Tigers in 2001 as a catcher. Over his 12 years in Detroit, he squatted behind the plate, and played all three outfield positions and second base, but primarily third base. Over those 12 years, Inge was with the Tigers through the good, the bad, and the ugly. And by ugly, I mean really doggone ugly. Inge was a member of the 2003 Tigers team that lost 119 games, only one game fewer than the infamous 1962 New York Mets.

But the Tigers’ fortunes turned three years later when GM Dave Dombrowski hired Jim Leyland to manage the team. Leyland led one of the most improbable turnarounds in MLB history in 2006, as the Tigers captured their first AL pennant in 22 years. Inge was a major offensive contributor, and his 27 homeruns were the second most on the team. He would match that total in 2009, earning his only All-Star Game selection by way of the Final Vote.

However, Inge’s offensive production would decline. After hitting only 13 homeruns in 2010, he had the worst season of his career in 2011, hitting a paltry .197 with 3 homeruns and 23 RBI in 102 games. When the Tigers acquired veteran third baseman Wilson Betemit from the Kansas City Royals shortly after the All-Star Break, the Tigers designated Inge for assignment. Although he had more than a decade of big-league service to his credit and could have elected free agency, he accepted a demotion to the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Toledo. At the time, Inge stated:

I could have made the decision to not accept the assignment and maybe get picked up by another team. But this is home, and this is my team. I need to go down and work this out, but I'll be back. I'll be back in September no matter what. That’s a definite.

Inge would return to the team on August 20 and hit a homerun in his first game back. Over the final six weeks of the season, he hit a respectable .283 (15-for-53), raising his batting average nearly 20 points, although not enough to get above The Mendoza Line. Nonetheless, in the 32 games Inge played in August and September, the Tigers went 27-5 and won the AL Central by 15 games over the Cleveland Indians. During the post-season, Inge hit .318 (7-for-22), including a homerun in the ALCS against the Texas Rangers.

Despite this late-season upswing, the writing was on the wall for Inge when the Tigers signed free agent Prince Fielder to a 9-year, $214-million contract back in January. With Fielder ensconced at first base, the Tigers moved the team’s other superstar, Miguel Cabrera, to third base, leaving Inge once again the odd man out. He struggled with what little playing time he had left with the Tigers this season. In nine games, he hit .100 (2-for-20), with only a homerun to show for it. Exactly three months after Fielder signed with Detroit, the Tigers released Inge after nearly 14 years of service in both the major and minor leagues. He was gracious with the Detroit media following his release:

It’s one of those things you can kind of see how things are going before they come. But, you know, it’s no hard feelings whatsoever. This is my family; where I’ve been my whole career and I’ll miss the guys. I will. But a chance to play maybe somewhere else. It maybe a good thing, a good start for me personally but my heart will always be in Detroit for 100 percent and forever.

I appreciate everything that’s happened here. Everything. Every opportunity I’ve been given. The stuff we’ve accomplished.

Three days later, Inge got a call from the A’s, and now he’s making the most of his opportunity. It is said that baseball is game of inches. But sometimes baseball can also be a game of Inges.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.