All signs point to Inge ready for opener
Monday's game latest indication third baseman feels healthy
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Forget about any doubt that Brandon Inge would be ready for Opening Day. The way he was swinging the bat on Monday, he might be waiting for the season to start right now.
At the very least, he wouldn't mind having some of these swings count for something. His first home run of the spring in the Tigers' 8-2 win over the Blue Jays on Monday was one of them. His double would've looked pretty good in April or May, too.
To manager Jim Leyland, having Inge out there at all is going to be a good sign.
"He'll be ready Opening Day," Leyland said before the game, "and he'll play a whole lot of games for us. That's a good thing."
In case there was any question, Leyland spent part of the bus ride to Dunedin Stadium in the morning talking with Inge.
"He said he'll be ready for sure," Leyland said.
The way he looked during the game suggests he'll come out swinging.
"I feel better," Inge said. "I've felt pretty good for the last three or four days, even if I've been striking out or not getting hits. The first week was trying to feel my legs in the box, trying to see how it was going to be, trying not to hurt myself. And once I think I got over that hump, now I think I'm back to the same mindset I [had] when I was hitting. I'm not thinking about anything else."
Maybe more important, Inge said he's back to the same mechanics he had in that swing that produced 21 home runs by the All-Star break, earning him consideration for a trip to the Midsummer Classic through the All-Star Final Vote as well as a spot in the Home Run Derby.
Monday's homer off Blue Jays left-hander Brian Tallet was that kind of shot. He turned on a 1-1 pitch and belted it well over the high left-field fence, to the left of the scoreboard and toward the practice fields beyond. It marked his first home run this spring.
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After flying out to left his next time up, Inge stepped to the plate in the fifth with rookie Scott Sizemore on first base and sent a shot down the left-field line. Sizemore rolled into third base, where Carlos Guillen's sacrifice fly to center plated him.
Inge left in the seventh for a pinch-runner following a one-out walk. It wasn't a full game for him, but with four plate appearances, it was pretty close.
The more repetitions he gets, the more he can get back the muscle memory of his old swing, which is why he batted cleanup on Monday to make an extra plate appearance easier without having to play deeper into the game.
When Inge debuted the retooled approach at the plate last season, pitchers struggled to adjust. Now, Inge is adjusting back to that. He said the shooting pain in his knees last year didn't necessarily alter his mechanics, but he had felt the sharp pain in his knees while following through on his swing.
"I'm 100 percent hitting, without a doubt," Inge said. "There are just certain aspects that maybe aren't, but you'd never notice. I feel them, but you guys would probably never know just by watching, which is good."
He is not at full health yet, either, but he likewise isn't far. He'll have good days and bad, but the latter days are ones he can play through.
"My eyes tell me that I see him a little stiff at times yet, but that's to be expected," Leyland said. "I think he's going to be absolutely fine, and I think if we don't have any setbacks he'll be ready to go."
Asked if he sees the impact of healthy knees on Inge yet, Leyland further explained: "Not yet, but it will. I mean, I think he gets achy on certain days -- not really pain, but kind of achy. He's not totally there yet, but he'll be fine."
There are certain areas, Inge said, when he notices. When he slows up going into a base, such as his double Monday, he can feel his knees stab at him a little. The more home runs he can hit early on, the better. The more no-doubt doubles he can slug rather than plays at the bag, the more he can counteract it by slowing up as he cruises in. It's one of the few times he has used the words "hustle" and "overkill" in the same sentence.
He can't play crazy like that just yet. More importantly, he isn't making crazy plays in the field yet, either.
"I kind of have to," Inge said, taking a look down at his knees. "These things aren't letting me be stupid right now. As they get better, I'll get stupid again."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.