Detroit's Inge down, but not out, in minors
TOLEDO, Ohio (AP)
Brandon Inge held court in front of his locker, chatting amiably about his hitting, his teammates and his future.
The 34-year-old third baseman is as talkative as ever. The only difference is the setting.
On a television screen overhead, the Detroit Tigers - Inge's Detroit Tigers - were playing Cleveland in a showdown between the American League Central's top teams. All Inge could do was take an occasional glance.
This isn't what anyone planned last October, when Inge signed a new two-year contract with Detroit worth $11.5 million. Since breaking into the big leagues with the Tigers in 2001, the approachable Inge has become a favorite among fans and his peers, even earning the Marvin Miller man of the year award from the players' association in 2010 because of his work with Michigan hospitals.
But only the most loyal supporters can overlook a .177 batting average, so when the Tigers felt they could no longer play him on a regular basis, they sent Inge down to Triple-A.
''We make this game a lot harder than it has to be. It's baseball,'' Inge reflected. ''I kick myself for getting off my own program early in the year, but it's no one's fault but my own.''
Inge's struggles put the Tigers in an unenviable position, trying to figure out what to do with a longtime contributor whose inability to hit was hurting the team. The Yankees went through something similar when Jorge Posada floundered in May, prompting New York to drop him in the batting order. A messy spat ensued.
Detroit went a step further, trading for third baseman Wilson Betemit last month and sending Inge to the Toledo Mud Hens. The Tigers plan to bring Inge back no later than Sept. 1, when rosters expand, but the veteran's future beyond that is uncertain. As Inge tries to snap out of an abysmal slump, his big league career - at least with Detroit - might be on the line.
''I figured I would give it one last shot, to do what they wanted, come down here, work on my swing. Like I said, it wasn't their fault. I put myself in this spot. I'll try to fix it,'' Inge said.
Inge talked at length about his difficult demotion both before and after Tuesday night's game in Toledo.
''If at some point, at the end of the year, they still feel like they don't want me, then that's fine. They can release me at the end of the year, and then I'll go find another team,'' Inge said. ''I don't want that to happen, but that's a respect thing for me. I'm going to give them every bit of my heart. I signed a contract for two years, and I want to try to play as hard as I can for two years. If they don't want me, that's their decision.''
When the Tigers brought Inge back during the offseason, both the team and the player figured they knew what they were getting. Inge's family had settled down in Michigan, and he was comfortable there. Detroit wanted Inge at a corner of its infield, where he could provide stability with his smooth fielding and occasional pop with his bat.
Inge has never hit for a particularly high average, but he'd reached double-digit home runs each of the previous seven seasons.
The 2011 campaign started well enough. Inge hit a solo shot to win a game against Texas on April 13 - but that's still his only homer of the season.
He was hitting .212 by the end of April, and May wasn't any better. Then he went on the disabled list with mononucleosis, and the bottom fell out. After returning, he went through a 4-for-54 stretch as fans began running out of patience.
The night the Tigers acquired Betemit, it seemed Inge's run with Detroit might be over, but he was willing to accept a trip to the minors to stay with the organization.
''If they ate my contract, I probably could have gone to 20 other teams that would have taken me in a heartbeat - especially National League teams, because they know I can play different positions,'' said Inge, who has also played catcher and the outfield during his career. ''But my kids go to school in (Michigan), and I've played here for 10 years at this point. I'm not finished playing here yet. I'm not even close to finished playing here. I have plenty of good years left.''
As if to prove the point, Inge homered in his first at-bat Tuesday.
''That's the best swing I've seen him take since he's been here,'' Mud Hens manager Phil Nevin said. ''He's been a pro. He's having a lot of fun. It's created a different personality in that room with these guys. Whether guys are on their way back or on their way up, guys that have been there, they're looked at different and perceived different in that room.''
In Detroit, Inge's locker is near the main entrance to the clubhouse, across from slugger Miguel Cabrera. In Toledo, he's between a pair of 22-year-old pitching prospects who are trying to reach the majors. Ryan Strieby, Toledo's designated hitter Tuesday night, was over on the other side of the room after the game. He's observed Inge since the scuffling Tiger was sent down.
''I haven't heard one negative word out of his mouth,'' Strieby said. ''He seems to be the same player that I've watched on TV for years.''
After being sent outright to Toledo on July 26, Inge hit .316 with three homers through Thursday's game. The Tigers, who led the AL Central by three games after a win Thursday, are hoping Inge can give them a boost when he returns, although they've been cautious with their comments.
''He's doing OK,'' Detroit manager Jim Leyland said Thursday before the finale of a three-game series at Cleveland. ''He's not tearing it up, but he's doing OK.''
At the very least, the demotion to the minor leagues seems to have helped Inge clear his mind, and he says that was his biggest priority. For the first time in a while, he's swinging the bat with confidence.
''As soon as people start talking mechanics to me and start figuring out other things, then it takes me out of my athleticism,'' Inge said. ''Getting down here, I haven't done one mechanic - not the whole time. All I've been doing is just having fun playing baseball.''
After over a decade in the big leagues, Inge sounds like a youngster eager to prove himself all over again - and that's an attitude he plans to maintain whenever Detroit calls him back up.
As bad as this season has been, there's still time for him to finish it on a high note with the Tigers.
''You just have to have fun and realize what mistakes you made and move on, and then get 'em next time,'' Inge said. ''I'm in a much better place right now, so I can't wait to get up there, because I'm not going to change when I get up there either. I'll make all the other guys have fun too.''