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Published: Friday, 5/19/2006

Inge, 29, is team's old man; enjoying new winning ways

DETROIT - Two months ago, Brandon Inge stood in front of his locker at spring training and fielded numerous questions.

But the Detroit third baseman refused to take the bait when asked repeatedly how he thought the Tigers would do this season. How many wins? How many losses?

"I don't make predictions anymore," Inge said. "I'm tired of coming down here every year and saying we're going to be over .500, we're going to have a winning season, and then we do poorly. It's silly, to be honest with you."

You could almost feel Inge's pain that day in Tigertown.

Detroit's longest-tenured player, who turns 29 today, was sick of losing and tired of making excuses for the team's dreadful play.

The Tigers had lost 90 or more games - and 502 overall - in the five seasons since Inge first broke into the majors in 2001, and Jim Leyland was his fourth manager.

"Your name gets associated with losing and I don't ever want to be considered a loser," Inge said.

Deep down, Inge thought the Tigers would be better this season. He knew for sure that Leyland, who won a World Series with the 1997 Florida Marlins, would be a better manager than Alan Trammell, who wasn't ready for the job when he was hired. But Inge had no idea the Tigers would be as good as they've been.

Detroit won its seventh consecutive game yesterday, beating the Minnesota Twins 5-3 to complete a three-game sweep at Comerica Park. It's the Tigers' longest winning streak since 1993. Three years after being the worst team in baseball with 119 losses, the first-place Tigers have the best record in baseball at 27-13.

"It's been an incredible turnaround," said Inge, who hit a two-run home run in the second inning against the Twins. "Three years ago, it probably took us until September to win 27 games. This feels great."

When Inge looks around the clubhouse, he can't help but wonder where everyone has gone from the 2001 team. A handful of players from that season are out of baseball, a few others are still playing.

Guys such as Bobby Higginson, Tony Clark, Damion Easley, Shane Halter, Deivi Cruz, Roger Cedeno, Robert Fick, Dean Palmer, Billy McMillon, Steve Sparks and Wendell Magee are pretty forgettable. Still, it's hard to believe that Inge is the old man on the Tigers.

He bounced back and forth between Detroit and Toledo in 2001, 2002 and 2003, and shuttled between the bench, the starting lineup and numerous positions in the field.

After getting bumped from his starting catcher's job in 2004 by Ivan Rodriguez, Inge happily traded in his catcher's glove for a much smaller mitt.

"I never had a catcher's mentality," he said. "Catching was always a battle for me. I enjoyed working with the pitchers, working with the umpires, calling the game and throwing runners out. I never really had a true passion for catching. I'd been an infielder all my life."

Although he is still learning to play third base, Inge has started more than 250 games at the hot corner the last three years.

Inge, who has hit five of his nine homers this month, is as happy as can be.

His role is no longer in doubt. And the Tigers are no longer laughable losers.



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