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Published: Friday, 7/22/2011

COMMENTARY

Inge's hitting left Tigers little choice

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

In an 11-season career that averages out to a .234 batting average, 16 home runs and 69 runs batted in per year, Brandon Inge hasn't exactly impersonated Al Kaline.

Yet, to many, he is the face of the Detroit Tigers, which is why there was at least some mild shock -- OK, mild surprise -- in Inge being replaced in the lineup and then swallowing an assignment with the Mud Hens.

Early in his career, Inge caught for teams that lost 106 and 119 games in successive seasons and couldn't pay fans to file through the Comerica Park gates.

Later, he played on a World Series team and for Detroit squads that drew more than three million fans in back-to-back seasons.

Inge has been there for the good, the bad, and everything in between.

The Tigers didn't want it to come to this. Inge didn't want it to come to this. But here we are.

Inge is hitting .177 on the season and is 4-for-53 since a stint on the disabled list with mononucleosis. An average offensive player -- albeit one with streaky power -- to begin with, Inge always did just enough to make himself indispensable with capable, sometimes spectacular defensive play at third base. But 4-for-53 makes anyone dispensable.

With the July 31 trading deadline approaching and in the heat of a pennant race, the Tigers could not afford to do nothing. So, they swallowed their distaste for releasing/demoting Inge and traded prospects to Kansas City for third baseman Wilson Betemit.

Baseball, of course, is business disguised as a game. And business is only as good as your last at-bat or last pitch.

The Tigers entered a key series at Minnesota last night tied for first place. But there are issues that have kept them from perhaps running away with a so-so AL Central Division.

Not only has a Detroit team that looks dominant on paper (six regulars are hitting .280 or better; five of them have at least 46 RBIs) failed to separate itself from a surprising Cleveland team, it has allowed Chicago and Minnesota to stick around. Both the general manager and manager are in the final years of their contracts, so there was no standing pat.

The back end of the rotation has been iffy -- nearly 100 games into the season, nobody has a clue who is the fifth starter -- and there are some awfully high ERAs in the bullpen. All of that cost pitching coach Rick Knapp his job.

The lack of production from third base has been the other obvious issue and that cost Inge his job.

Whether Betemit is the answer remains to be seen. He, too, had lost his job in K.C. and, despite a .281 average, had only 15 at-bats in the Royals' last 30 games and is hitting .170 since the end of May.

Detroit is hoping changes in scenery will be good for both players. As for Inge, presuming he and his $5.5 million contract pass through waivers, his scenery is going to be Fifth Third Field and other International League outposts.

That would have been hard to imagine during the first half of the 2009 season, when All-Star Inge was hitting 21 home runs. But there have been few signs of that hitter since. First it was physical ailments; now it's obviously mental.

Watching his futility almost since Opening Day has been painful. Hearing boos has just seemed wrong. He has been a Tiger and one of the franchise's most popular players for upwards of 1,400 career games. That's what made the move so hard.

The numbers, though, made it easy. So Brandon Inge will come to Toledo and try to fix himself.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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