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Tigers get big boost from little-known Inge

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Some things in baseball, like organ music and Jim Palmer's hair, are constants. Consider the No. 9 hitter, who is always:

A) The nose-picking kid you pick last on the sandlot and stick in right field and when he bats, you tell him to take two strikes -- maybe three -- before swinging.

B) The pitcher who not only can't hit but can't figure out how to get the doughnut off his bat.

C) A middle infielder who can't hit but has a little bit of speed so he looks good legging out groundouts.

And then we have these Detroit Tigers. The Tigers are known for their starting pitching -- and rightfully so -- but another reason they had the game's best record for so much of the season is they also have overlooked power. The three hitters at the bottom of the lineup each hit at least 25 home runs. That includes Brandon Inge, their most regular No. 9 hitter, who hit 27.

The Tigers are young enough that few have been in Detroit long enough to remember when the auto industry still thought SUVs were a good idea -- closer Todd Jones is the only player on the roster to call Tiger Stadium home, but he pitched with six other teams between 2001 and this season. Aside from Jones, Inge has the longest service with Detroit, going back to 2001 when the Tigers were merely bad (they lost 96 games that season) and not historically awful (as they were when they lost a league-record 119 games in 2003).

Fittingly, Inge moved the Tigers another step forward from those dismal days when he homered off Barry Zito in the third inning of the ALCS opener to give Detroit a 1-0 lead, doubled in a run in the fourth, scored another run, and also singled and walked in the Tigers' eventual 5-1 victory. Inge's production was enough for starter Nate Robertson, who threw five scoreless innings to earn the win.

So, what do you know? Detroit, given up for dead after losing its final five games of the regular season -- including three at home against last-place Kansas City -- then laid out for burial by the media after losing the division series opener to the Yankees, has won four consecutive games.

"I'd say there was more pressure the last game against Kansas City because we were in a lose-lose situation," Inge said in comparing the pressure of the ALCS to that weekend. "If we won, we were supposed to, and if we lost, shame on us. This is the postseason. It's kind of a new slate. It's wiped clean, and we can go out there now and forget everything that happened in the season."

The Tigers are free swingers, but they said they went into the game determined to not chase Zito's pitches and to make him work for every out. Zito mowed through the first eight batters in Detroit's lineup, however, before Inge ruined his night by slamming a 2-1 pitch over the left-field wall. He had been 3-for-24 lifetime against Zito before the home run. "I guess my strategy was maybe just to make contact," Inge joked. "I didn't realize I was 3-for-24 against him. I'm glad I didn't know that stat."

From that point on, Zito could do little right. Thirteen of the next 15 batters reached base before the lefty finally left the mound trailing 5-0, having thrown 92 pitches in less than four innings.

"Obviously," Tigers left fielder Craig Monroe said, "if you can eliminate chasing the bad pitches, you make him throw strikes."

Inge began his career as a catcher, then was moved to third base. He has turned into a pretty good fielder, and he showed it when he alertly scooped up Jay Payton's comebacker off Joel Zumaya and threw him out at first base.

"He's one of the best I've ever played against," said first baseman Sean Casey, who joined the Tigers in midseason. "I remember when we were playing against them in Pittsburgh and he made a couple plays. I told [Tigers coach] Andy Van Slyke how impressed I was, and he said, 'You should see him every day.' "

Casey left the game with a strained left calf after grounding out in the sixth inning, one of the few things that went poorly for Detroit. "It felt like someone had hit me; that's why I looked back," he said. "I doubt if I'll be able to play [Game 2], but maybe after the day off Thursday I can come back."

"I'm going to play it by ear," manager Jim Leyland said of his first-base options. "We'll have to go with the combination of Ramon Santiago and Omar Infante and Carlos Guillen at first base, and we'll have to get through it the best we can."

Guillen replaced Casey during the game, which is not the sort of move you usually see a team make. A shortstop at first base? Well, why not? If you have a No. 9 hitter belting 27 home runs, why not stay unconventional?

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can reach Jim at jimcaple.com