Monday, October 02, 2006

A Game Of Inges: Tigers Can't Hold On To Division

Brandon Inge stood at the plate in the bottom of the 11th inning with a chance to make some history, and to gain some redemption. The bases were loaded, there was one out, and the game was tied, 8-8. Just 90 feet away was the run that would give the Tigers their first divisional title since 1987.

It was easy to think it was appropriate that Inge, of all the Tigers, should be standing in the batter's box at that critical juncture. Inge is one of the survivors from the wretched 2003 season -- the season of 119 losses and Jay Leno jokes. When the team signed Pudge Rodriguez to catch in 2004, Inge -- the supplanted backstop -- came off as a petulant sort when he whined that he could play the position as well as the perennial All-Star Rodriguez, so why did the team have to go and sign that bum, anyway? He's been -- Inge, that is -- maligned as a Tiger the last two seasons. He can't do this, he can't do that. But in 2006, he finally silenced most of those hypercritical folks.

Friday night, the Tigers were one out away from a win that would have crept them ever-so-close to the frustratingly elusive AL Central title. A foul ball was lofted toward the stands on the third base side. A seemingly impossible play would have to be made in order to catch the floater, but Inge, the most athletic of all the Tigers, was going to try to make it anyway. Running full speed, Inge crashed into the metal barrier and fell forward into the stands, having gotten his glove on the ball -- a miracle in of itself. He didn't make the catch, but he was inches from doing so. Moments later, the pesky Kansas City Royals tied the game, and won it in extra innings. Celebration on hold.

Now Inge could gain his redemption. One little hit, or a fly ball, or even a walk, and the Tigers would be winners and the division would be theirs. Inge swung, and laced a ground ball at third base -- the actual base itself. It was foul. Barely.

A game of inches. A game of Inges.

The bursting-at-the seams Tigers all began to race out of their dugout, so sure that Inge's hit was fair and the game was over. But it wasn't, and the at-bat would continue. Alas, Inge struck out on what Rod Allen told us on television was a forkball. Celebration on hold.

In fact, there was no celebration, at all. The Tigers failed to score during that 11th inning rally, and the Royals, who wore their hitting shoes all weekend, erupted for two in the top of the 12th. They won the game, 10-8, recovering from an early 6-0 hole. On Friday, the Royals won after falling behind 5-0.

The Tigers lost the game. They lost the division. They lost home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. In fact they cannot, as a Wild Card, have home field advantage in any playoff series they play. From May 16 to September 30, the Tigers held at least a share of first place. But the MLB schedule ran to October 1st, and on that day, the Tigers were no longer even shared occupants of first place.

What the Tigers did gain, however, was the ignominy of losing their final five games, all at home, including the last three to the horrid Royals. But a word about Kansas City's team. That Missouri city ought to be proud of them. They came here clearly determined not to see another on-field celebration, as they witnessed last weekend on their home field. They played the Tigers hard, and suddenly turned into the 1927 Yankees at the worst possible time. It made me think that if they had played that way for the other 159 games, the Central would have been the best division of all time.

But alas, it must be said -- and I'm sure I'm not the only one to do so this morning: the Tigers choked. They gagged totally, unable to win just a single game since Tuesday. The White Sox gave the Tigers the help they needed, beating the Twins Friday and Saturday. The Tigers went to the ballpark Saturday knowing the Twins had lost. They gave up seven runs in the first inning and fell 9-6. Sunday, they had that 6-0 lead and frittered it away, giving it up like a slow water torture. Those pesky Royals.

It's just a bummer. A lousy way to end a season. The best way to describe it is this: The Tigers were great for 112 games, and lousy for 50. Now they have to be great again, or else their postseason run will be over by the end of the week.

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