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06/28/09 6:57 PM ET

Ailing Inge looks fine on go-ahead jack

Third baseman's late homer sends Detroit past Houston

HOUSTON -- Brandon Inge can feel his left patella tendon in his left knee aching when he walks, let alone when he runs around the bases. But that's nothing compared to the bruise he put on the Astros Sunday as he made his go-ahead-homer trot in the ninth inning.

It ended up being a pretty good Band-Aid for a Tigers club that would've been hurting heading into Oakland had it not pulled out Sunday's 4-3 win at Minute Maid Park.

"It's a long road trip we're on right now -- three cities, ending up in Minnesota, where it's hard for us to beat them in their place," Inge said after his two-run homer helped the Tigers salvage a win in this three-game series. "To start off a road trip with a sweep, it's not how you want to do it. It's big just to get us started back in the right direction."

It doesn't heal all of the Tigers' ills from the weekend, including an offense that has struggled to put up big innings. But it sure helps.

Kazuo Matsui's seventh-inning double seemed set to give Houston the sweep and Edwin Jackson a hard-luck loss. Astros starter Russ Ortiz and two relievers had set down 10 straight Tigers since Curtis Granderson's game-tying home run in the sixth inning -- his 18th homer of the season -- and Placido Polanco's hit by pitch. Astros closer Jose Valverde had a 1-2 count on Marcus Thames, one strike away from sealing Detroit's defeat.

While Thames has a well-deserved reputation for big home runs, he's less known for his walks. A little more than half of his 115 career walks have come with two strikes, and 31 have been after 1-2 counts. He has 21 in the late innings of close games, where the Tigers are either tied, ahead by a run or have the potential tying run at least on deck.

Given Valverde's power arsenal, it would be obviously tempting for Thames to look for the long ball. Thames, however, was looking to stay alive.

"I know what he's got," Thames said. "He's going to go to his bread and butter, and his bread and butter is his split-finger. I was just trying to make sure I saw it up. He kept trying to get me to chase it, and I wouldn't chase it."

Three straight Valverde pitches went low and outside. Thames laid off all of them to put the tying run on base and extend the game for Inge.

"It looked like they were starting in a good spot and kind of running off," Inge said. "That was the big at-bat, in the grand scheme of things. He took a lot of good pitches. I give him a lot of credit."

Like Thames, Inge isn't known for his patience, either, though he annually runs up some of the highest pitch counts per at-bat of anyone in the league. That wasn't the issue at hand this time, hitting a mistake pitch was.

While Inge credits his adjusted position at the plate for his hitting resurgence this season, being able to drive more pitches with authority and make better contact, he also believes it allows him to take advantage of mistakes better. Once Valverde left his 1-0 fastball over the plate at 95 mph, Inge pounced.

"I was just trying to stay on the fastball," Inge said. "I had noticed he walked Marcus on the split-finger, and he threw me a first-pitch split-finger, so I thought he probably wasn't going to fall behind really bad. Stay on the fastball and be aggressive with it.

"I think that's one of the things I'd thought of here recently. The mistake pitches, you're still going to miss them from time to time, but I feel I don't miss them as much. And I think my hands have something to do with getting myself into a better body posture so that I don't miss them."

Valverde knew it as soon as Inge swung, pounding the mound in disgust. Inge knew it, too, refraining to look up at the flight of the ball as he limped around first base. The only question was where it would land, eventually hitting high off the left-field facade above the Crawford Boxes.

The estimated distance on the shot was 386 feet. The difference in the standings, and potentially the road trip, was far bigger.

Inge nearly left the game in the fifth inning after stepping on first base awkwardly to leg out a single. Head athletic trainer Kevin Rand and manager Jim Leyland came out to attend to him, but he stayed in. It figured that he'd have to run all the way from first to score on Gerald Laird's double two batters later.

"I was trying not to limp," Inge said. "I looked like an idiot."

His slight limp as he rounded the bases in the ninth, however, looked pretty good to the Tigers.

"Tremendous win," Leyland said. "Tremendous."

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