Sunday probably wasn't Brandon Inge's last game with the Tigers, let alone his last game, period. But as he dove into the air for Luke Scott's line drive in the hole to finish off the 4-2 win over the Orioles, he didn't have to leave the field with any regrets.
"I'll tell you what, I was like a golden retriever going after a tennis ball," Inge said. "I was like, 'No way is that ball landing. I'm going to catch this thing.'"
The win closes out the Tigers season at 81-81, their fourth mark of .500 or better in five seasons under Leyland. It also closed out the Tigers tenures of quite a few players on a high note.
Johnny Damon received an ovation from the Tigers fans in attendance on his way back into the dugout, having been lifted for a pinch-runner after his go-ahead RBI single in the sixth inning. Jeremy Bonderman and Gerald Laird were likely wearing a Detroit uniform for the last time, though team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said there's a small chance they could bring back Bonderman later in the offseason.
But of all the potential Tigers free agents, the biggest impact on Sunday's game came from the one who appears most likely to be back. Inge did it with the kind of game fans have come to appreciate from him over the years.
"We had a very short team meeting before the game," Inge said. "It was one of those where Skip [Leyland] just kind of held it and gave us some thanks for everything this year, sorry it didn't work out the way we wanted to. But he also mentioned something about if we win today, we'll be at .500, and there's something to be said for that. And I think there is, and I think that everyone that went out there kind of had it on their mind: It's the last day, but could it kill you to play as hard as you can?
"Try to get a win on the last day, get what you can out of the season, make it respectable. The concentration level, I think, was up on everyone today."
That's saying a lot for a team that lost Miguel Cabrera on Monday, the first game of this season-ending road trip, and ended up losing six straight. They went from a chance at 85 wins or more to the verge of their second losing season in three years, a sad fate for a team that was leading the AL Central as recently as early July.
"I just wanted to thank them for their efforts," Leyland said of his pregame speech. "I told them that we had to play the game. We couldn't get out of here any earlier. We're going to have to play this game, so let's play it like it's your last game."
Normally, the season's final game is when that feeling of inevitability takes over, and hitters go up hacking early and often in a quick game that gets them to the airport -- and headed for home. After the Orioles put up two runs on five hits against Phil Coke in the setup man's first Major League start, it was seemingly headed in that direction.
O's starter Brad Bergesen didn't allow a hit until Jhonny Peralta hit a ground ball through the left side for a one-out single in the fifth. Two batters later, Bergesen went at Inge with back-to-back fastballs and paid for it with a game-tying two-run homer.
"He had a big day, obviously," Leyland said.
Will Rhymes' one-out double in the next inning set up Damon, who hit a bouncer through the middle that allowed Rhymes to score easily. It wasn't a big ovation from the mostly Baltimore fans as Damon left the field, but it was a significant ovation from the dugout.
"It's a respect thing," Leyland said.
Meanwhile, the Tigers bullpen picked up their fellow reliever Coke, soon to become a member of Detroit's rotation if all goes according to plan. Daniel Schlereth (2-0), who could succeed Coke as a key lefty reliever, took advantage of the Orioles' aggressive young hitters to strike out four over 3 1/3 scoreless innings. Robbie Weinhardt and Brad Thomas tossed a scoreless inning apiece to set up Jose Valverde for his 26th save of the year, and his first since Sept. 4.
Inge, meanwhile, finished the season with home runs in his last two games, even if he isn't finished in Detroit. The Tigers made him a multi-year contract offer earlier in the week, a vote of confidence that seemed to stick with him.
He wants to stick around, but he also knows the business end. The Tigers know what to expect from him, which is part of the reason why they want him around.
"They know what they're going to get," Inge said. "I'm going to go out there and play as hard as I can, rain or shine, whether I'm injured or not."
They got it Sunday.