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Defense key to Tigers' run at playoffs

Defense key to Tigers' run at playoffs

CHICAGO -- One night, Brandon Inge looks like Superman in the field. The next night, he ends up wearing an "E" instead of an "S".

That's how quickly defense can turn in a game, even for a Gold Glove Award candidate. It's also a sign of how much defense means to the Tigers in their drive toward a postseason berth.

When manager Jim Leyland announced a year ago that Inge would be his everyday third baseman in 2009, he didn't make the move for offense. He was looking to get Inge's glove into the lineup as a way to help his pitching staff. He felt that could make a difference on a club that had offensive talent in abundance last year but struggled to get outs from pitchers or fielders, alike.

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Tigers at a glance
2009 record: 86-76
2008 record: 74-88
AL Central: Tied with Twins
Possible matchup:
Tigers at Yankees
Postseason tix: Information

WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
Porcello: Daunting task
Rotation: Lined up for ALDS
Ordonez: Trying season
Jackson: Stepping up
Rodney: Nearly perfect
Inge: Ignoring pain
Verlander: Big statement
Granderson: Good timing
Leyland: Calm, cool leader
Defense: Key to success
Detroit: Tigers lift spirits
Jackson: Back on track
Verlander: Off the charts

Fitting, then, that on consecutive days, Inge's plays made the difference in two different games in two different ways.

Inge has practically been a regular on highlight reels over the years for his acrobatics at third base, from his dives into the seats for foul balls to his strong-armed throws across the infield. Even in his vast collection, though, Thursday's diving stop for the final out of a 6-5 win over the Indians to complete a three-game sweep in Cleveland ranked up there on his list.

It robbed Jhonny Peralta of a chance to at least put the potential tying run on third with two outs. Depending on how the ball fell and how aggressively the Indians chose to be on the basepaths, it could've sent pinch-runner Niuman Romero racing home.

Instead, it sent Inge fully outstretched to his left to snare the line drive.

"I think I've made ones that are more difficult than that," Inge said. "But the timing of it, yeah, that was key."

Don Kelly, playing left field at the time, said in hindsight that he felt he had a play on the ball. He was coming in on the ball and didn't expect a bad hop that would slow him from firing home.

That said, he had as good of a view of the catch as anyone. He saw it in superhuman terms.

"He's like Superman," Kelly said Friday, still in awe.

A few hours later, Inge was discussing what he called a bad read on an Alex Rios grounder to third that skipped off the heel of his glove with one out in the sixth in Friday's 2-0 loss to the White Sox. Tigers starter Eddie Bonine had a no-hitter at the time, but he lost it two batters later on Gordon Beckham's two-run homer.

"I feel so bad," Inge said. "I feel like I screwed that up for him tonight. [Beckham] wouldn't have even come into play if I hadn't made that stupid error."

That's a snapshot of the dichotomy of Inge and his defense. Nobody has more putouts among Major League third basemen this year, and it isn't close. Yet Inge also leads his position with 18 errors.

The Tigers will take that. His athleticism allows him the range to reach more ground balls and liners than most, if not all others at the hot corner. He draws praise from Tigers pitchers, who are saved pitches when he makes plays like Thursday.

"That guy's unbelievable," Justin Verlander said.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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