DUANE BURLESON / AP Enlarge
LAKELAND, Fla. - Brandon Inge was scared and agitated when he reported to spring training a year ago.
His starting job was gone - the Detroit Tigers had signed 11-time All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez to replace him - and so was his job security.
"Any time someone comes in and replaces you and your job is just wiped out, you're going to feel a little depressed, and a little mad at the world," Inge said. "I had no clue what was going to happen. I didn't know anything about my future.
"I didn't know if I was going to be put on waivers, or if I was going to get traded, or if I was just going to rot away on the bench."
Inge initially balked at manager Alan Trammell's suggestion that he consider playing other positions in order to win a roster spot.
"I said no originally because I didn't want to be bumped into that category as a utility player," Inge said. "I know you can have a long career as a utility player, because guys have done it, but you also sit on the bench a lot.
"I didn't want to do that. I wanted to play every day. I wanted to play every inning of every game."
Eventually, Trammell convinced Inge that playing multiple positions was the right thing for him.
Because of his versatility, Inge not only found a new role - he was the Tigers' top utility man, shuffling between catcher, outfielder and third base - he got a new lease on his career.
A lifetime .198 hitter, he set career highs in almost every offensive category last season, batting .287 with 13 homers and 64 RBIs in 131 games and 408 at-bats.
"I didn't change my swing at all last year," Inge said. "I had the same motion and the same muscle memory all year and that really made a big difference in my stroke and my average. I was able to make the most of my at-bats."
This spring, Inge has picked up right where he left off.
He is among the leaders in Grapefruit League play with four homers and 10 RBIs.
"Everyone is finally leaving me alone," he said. "I am not the type of hitter who needs mechanical help."
More importantly, Inge has taken over as the Tigers' everyday third baseman, replacing Eric Munson.
"It's been more fun this year, because I was more relaxed from the get-go, knowing I had a position, knowing it's a position that I loved more than anyone on the field," Inge said. "So, now I can just go out and play that one position, and have fun.
"I love third base. It's the right position for me. I'm a lot more relaxed. Catching was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. You had to deal with the pitching staff, the coaching staff and the scouting reports. It was tough, real tough."
Inge, who played shortstop and doubled as an all-conference reliever at Virginia Commonwealth, batted .319 in 73 starts at third base for the Tigers last season, compared to .257 when playing in the outfield and .238 when catching.
"This guy, he thinks he can hit, and he wants to prove to people that last year was something that's more like what Brandon Inge is, if not more," Trammell said. "He sees and hears some doubters, and I think he wants to prove people wrong. He just looks more comfortable."
Inge's main focus has been on learning how to play the hot corner.
"He looks really comfortable," Trammell said. "It's definitely an upgrade from what we had last year. Brandon is more athletic than Munson. We think Brandon has it in him to be a Gold Glove third baseman."
Inge is not even the Tigers' backup catcher anymore. That job belongs to Vance Wilson, acquired in an off-season trade with the New York Mets.
"Physically, I feel more energetic," Inge said. "Mentally, I feel like a new person. I'm having fun playing baseball this year. I feel like a little kid again."
Contact Ron Musselman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6474.28.04419 -81.94786