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Another spring, another challenge for Detroit's Inge

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Brandon Inge might be the best insurance plan in the major leagues. But you know how boring insurance is. Even Inge doesn't want to go over the finer details of himself as the Tigers' current policy.

Don't get me wrong. One of the most down-to-earth, hardest-working and friendliest players in the game, Inge was more than happy to talk Wednesday as he prepared to make his first appearance of the spring at third base in the aftermath of slugger Miguel Cabrera's eye injury.

It's just that, he prefers to view things through the prism of winning a regular job in the Tigers' lineup. Reality is, he doesn't even have a lock on making the club, period.

"I want to be in the starting lineup, in the same spot, every day," Inge says, acknowledging that it's still too early in the spring to say what's going to happen, and isn't Inge the expert in that department?

Seems like for most of the 11 years he's played in Motown, the Tigers have been hiring people to take his job.

And like the robins to Michigan each spring, Inge keeps returning.

"I just do what I can to keep playing the game, because I love playing it," says Inge, 34, the Tigers' second-round draft pick in 1998, who is competing with Ryan Raburn for the second base job. "As long as I have the opportunity to keep the uniform on playing baseball, I'm going to do it."

Manager Jim Leyland cautioned against getting any ideas Thursday, saying Inge was in the lineup at third simply because the manager is trying to get him some at-bats. The Tigers remain fully committed to Cabrera, who suffered a broken bone under his right eye via a hard ground ball the other day and will miss at least a week or two.

The manager had no qualms about sticking Inge at third Thursday because Inge can practically play that position in his sleep. Leyland asked, know how Gates Brown could hit a fastball on Christmas Day? That's Inge at third.

"I knew it was going to be tough for him this year," Inge says of Cabrera. "He's great. But you're on the opposite side of the field over there, and it's been several years since he's played third base.

"He was becoming a very good first baseman, so it's got to be a trip to his ego, too. You've got to make adjustments. I don't know how beneficial it will be to him or to us.

"I'm more concerned about him. We need him."

That's Inge, who is entering the final season of a two-year, $11.5 million deal (the Tigers hold a $6 million option on him for 2013). Selfish is for others.

"I don't believe the grass is always greener on the other side," he says. "I've been treated well here. I've treated the organization well.

"I think there's good mutual respect. I love the game. That's why I stay around."

Sometimes, it must feel like unrequited love.

He was the catcher when the Tigers signed free agent Pudge Rodriguez in 2004.

He shoved over to third base ... and then the Tigers traded for Miguel Cabrera, who, at the time, was a third baseman.

So Inge went back behind the plate ... only to move back to third.

He didn't hit last year, and the Tigers acquired Wilson Betemit to play third and put Inge on waivers. He cleared, dutifully reported to the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens and fought his way back.

By the playoffs last year, Inge was back at third base. He batted .318 during the postseason and had a .500 on-base percentage during Detroit's first-round knockout of the Yankees.

So what happens? Victor Martinez gets hurt, the Tigers sign Prince Fielder and move Cabrera back across the diamond to third base.

Here Inge is again, shoved aside, competing with Raburn.

If you're one of Detroit's pitchers -- say, in particular, a certain Cy Young and MVP winner -- you love having Inge in the lineup because he's easily the best glove in Detroit's infield.

"Superb," Justin Verlander says.

So good that one coach with a rival team still predicts Inge will wind up at third this season and Cabrera at DH.

"He just wants to play," Verlander says. "He means a lot to this city. He wants to be part of Detroit pride. He's played his whole career here."

Inge hired a personal trainer over the winter, changed his workouts (moving heavy into mixed martial arts) and says he gained 20 pounds of muscle.

"For one thing, I had a bad year last year," says Inge, who hit .197 with three homers and 23 RBI in 102 games. "That's fine. I take that on my shoulders. That's no one else's fault."

At the same time, though, he says he's "someone who gets motivated by people who doubt me. People think I can't do things, and every time we acquire someone else, I use it as motivation: I'm better than what they think.

"After awhile, it's like, 'Man, how many times do I have to prove myself to you?'"

Answer this spring in Detroit is, at least one more.

Will Raburn play second, Cabrera third, Andy Dirks left field and Delmon Young DH? Will Young play left? Will Clete Thomas (who is out of options) make the club? Danny Worth? The ripple affects Inge.

If he hits, he makes the Tigers' decision for them because his glove is so good. But then, of 17 Tigers with at least 20 at-bats heading into Wednesday's Grapefruit League game with the Twins, Inge's .200 batting average was the lowest of the bunch.

"It's weird having a team this good and having so much uncertainty," Inge says. "I'm not sure if we're going to have certainty. The way Leyland runs the team, he mixes things up."

Leyland has sworn he will not be removing Cabrera from third base to tighten the defense in the late innings this year. But, realistically, that plan may get scrambled, too. As Inge observes -- accurately -- "We've got a slow infield. There's not a lot of range."

However it all shakes out, and this is one of the most fascinating teams in baseball for all of these reasons, one of the few certainties here is this: Inge will keep plugging and, if history is any indication, continue to meet every challenge.

As the man knows, the grass is not always greener elsewhere.

"Common sense," he says. "Don't bite the hand that feeds you.

"I'm going to be respectful and keep playing the game the way I always have."


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