Monday, July 16, 2007

Monday Morning Manager

(my weekly take on the Tigers)

Last Week: 2-2
This Week: (7/17-19: at Min; 7/20-22: KC)

A few years ago, he was the whiny, soon-to-be former catcher of the Tigers. Management had just somehow lured Pudge Rodriguez to its 43-119 dregs of a ballclub. It was February, 2004. And Brandon Inge, the incumbent catcher, was barking.

"I know I can be just as good defensively," Inge crabbed to reporters as the Tigers were about to unveil their new, Hall of Fame backstop. "I'm not seeeing where it's (signing Rodriguez) is that much of an upgrade."

Inge's comments were noticeably devoid of offensive talk. At the time, his career BA wasn't even .200, in over 800 AB.

Rather than ship Inge away, though, the Tigers decided to convert him into a third baseman.

Today, Brandon Inge, no longer a catcher in mind or in spirit -- and certainly not in shin guards and chest protector -- is becoming one of the best third basemen (defensively) in all of Major League Baseball.

Inge displayed more of that glove prowess over the weekend against the Mariners.

Twice he made the signature play of the Gold Glove third sacker -- the bare-handed, grab-and-throw on a slow roller to nip the batter by a micro step. And he did it, both times, with not only confidence and coolness, but he has attained greatness at his position in this way: you EXPECT him to make that play, no matter how tough. Both times I saw him make it, I was amazed. But neither time was I surprised.

Also, on Saturday, a foul pop-up drifted toward the stands, off third base. Inge glided that way, one eye on the ball, the other on the grandstands. You could tell, by watching on TV, that this would be no easy endeavor -- but that Inge would try it anyway. He reached with his right, gloveless hand to feel for the railing, his eyes never losing sight of the ball. It was evident by now that this ball would not be caught in fair territory, if caught at all. And it wasn't. Inge dived INTO the stands, glove extended and open, throwing his entire body into the paying customers who scrambled to get out of his way. He literally disappeared among them. But when he emerged, the baseball was secure in his mitt.

It was one of the most brilliant plays I'd seen a third baseman make in years.

Friday night, Inge dove to his right, placing himself horizontal to the ground, and caught Adrian Beltre's liner, robbing him of a double when the Mariners were threatening to cut into the Tigers' lead.

There's also the howitzer of an arm, which enables him to make up for any bobbles or precious seconds when he has to hit the dirt to snare a ball.

Inge has not only converted into a third baseman -- he's morphing into Brooks Robinson before our very eyes.

The play in the stands came one batter after centerfielder Curtis Granderson made a nifty shoestring catch on a liner to straightaway center. Those two players, Granderson and Inge, represent the next two Gold Glove winners the Tigers will boast. They should come this year; if they don't, call the Attorney General, for a crime of monumental proportions will have been committed.

For the record, Inge says he doesn't miss catching anymore.

Inge's heroics with the glove, combined with the usual, "strike quickly and suddenly" offense, helped the Tigers gain a 2-2 split in Seattle. A keeper, for sure. The Mariners had been red hot at home, and in general.

This week, it's three in that damn Metrodome, followed by a weekend visit by the Royals, which represent the Tigers' only home games until August 3rd. But starting 8/3, the Tigers will finish the season with a decidedly home-heavy schedule. They MUST turn Comerica Park into a house of horrors for the visiting teams. If they do that, they should be a shoe-in for the playoffs.



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