Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Inge, Not Sheffield, Leads The List Of Slow Starters At The Plate

He's battled a flu bug; maybe that's the reason. He's hit a few homers, so maybe it'll all come together soon. And he bats ninth, so at least there's no pressure, from that standpoint. Besides, he's still playing a solid third base.

Gary Sheffield has gotten the most attention among all the Tigers who've gotten off to painfully slow starts at the plate, and with good reason. Actually, with tens of millions of good reasons -- the green paper with presidents' faces on them.

But the cold bats go beyond Sheffield. Every night the Tigers, it seems, are starting four guys with BA under .200. And the furthest away from .200 is third baseman Brandon Inge.

Inge is at .111, and there have been enough AB this season to make this a genuine, full-blown slump. What's worse, other than the three homeruns, Inge is barely making good contact. He's striking out a lot -- though that's not unusual. But he's striking out A LOT. Twenty-four K's already, in just 63 AB. Them are Rob Deer numbers.

When I spoke to Sheffield last week for a piece for Michigan In Play! Magazine, he talked with the quiet confidence of an 18-year veteran. I wondered aloud whether it was too early to panic about his snail-like beginning.

"I never panic in baseball," he said. "I know what I can do."

Inge is far younger than Sheffield, but he doesn't strike me as a panicker, either. But I've been watching Inge after one failed at-bat after another, and there is certainly frustration, which I haven't really seen from Sheff. And Inge's body language after some of his strikeouts tell me that there might be some confusion in his batter's mind.

All of which I'm sure isn't news to manager Jim Leyland, batting coach Lloyd McClendon, or anyone else associated with the ballclub.

One of the reasons the Tigers were so successful in 2006 was because of the production they got from the bottom of the order -- specifically Craig Monroe and Inge. But Monroe is slumping, too (.172 BA, 1 HR) -- and so is #7 hitter Sean Casey (.188, 1 RBI in 69 AB).

But the worst of these offenders is Inge. He's nowhere near getting himself out of this malaise, it appears. Not much has been spoken about him by Leyland -- maybe because of the higher profile Sheffield's slump.

Brandon Inge won't be able to fly under the radar much longer. Nor will Monroe, nor will Casey. Sooner or later these guys have to start contributing to the cause. Amazing that the Tigers are 11-9 despite such horrific starts by so many key hitters.

The Tigers have hit the 1/8 mark in the season, and so many batting averages are still below people's playing weight around here. Heck, Inge's is below an anorexic actress's weight.


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