April 6, 2009 at 9:52 pm

Self defense: Brandon Inge unveils tricks of his trade

Brandon Inge on fielding ground balls: "You don't have time to get around the ball as you do at shortstop." (John T. Greilick/The Detroit News)

Brandon Inge is considered by baseball experts to be a marvel at third base. His range, his arm, his footwork, his ability to charge balls and make barehanded throws, is regarded as extraordinary at a position that requires exceptional responses and athleticism.

Inge has played third base for only half of his professional career. A one-time shortstop who was converted to catcher, Inge began dabbling at third base when Alan Trammell was Tigers manager and became the regular there until being unseated during the Tigers' positional flux of 2008. Now he's back at third base. It's a position he loves.

And this is how he plays it.

Set-up

Getting a jump on a ground ball is Inge's mission. He takes a slight step forward with his left foot and then "jabs" his right foot into the ground. It enables him at contact to break to his left or right, or charge a slow roller or bunt.

"It's a good athletic position, like guarding someone in basketball," Inge says of his jab-step square-up to the hitter. He notices some third basemen take the jab step after contact. Inge believes he can save a split-second on getting to a ball by jabbing early, which puts him in an optimum position to move in any direction.

Positioning

Coaches and the manager will often signal to a third baseman where he is to play against a particular batter, but Inge knows the hitters well enough to generally position himself.

He likes to play well off the line, ranging to his left, believing that the percentage of balls hit in the hole for singles outweigh the occasional hot shot down the line that might get by him for a double. Adam Everett 's arrival at shortstop enables him to move even more to the middle as Everett shifts a step or two toward second base, again as a percentage move by two infielders with extraordinary range.

Fielding ground balls

Big league third basemen understand that they seldom get a straight ground ball. Normally, a ball hit by a right-handed batter comes at them on a hard hook -- a product of side-spin that will send the ball on a hot trajectory toward the line.

"You don't have time to get around the ball as you do at shortstop," says Inge, who tries to play low and stay in front of the ball, almost like a hockey goalie. By keeping his balance and anchoring into the dirt, and by broadening his shoulders, he guards against bad-hop grounders slipping by him. He can knock down the ball and nine times out of 10 still have time to throw out the runner at first.

Throws to first base

Inge loves Miguel Cabrera, whose 6-foot-4 frame makes an ideal target for throws to first base. Once he has the ball, and as Cabrera strides toward the bag to take the throw, Inge will "lead" him almost like a quarterback throwing ahead of a receiver.

"I just try and hit him in the chest," Inge says. "I try not to look too much at the first baseman and instead look at the base and try to make a level throw. It takes the variables out of the picture if he isn't quite there (at the bag) yet."

Guarding the line

In the late innings of a tight game, baseball's general rule is to guard the third-base line, protecting against a double that can put a runner into scoring position. Inge still prefers to play a tad more away from the chalk.

His objective is to take a crossover step followed by a single step and still be in foul territory to grab a hot shot that is headed for extra bases. At these and other times, the shortstop helps out according to the pitch being thrown. If a breaking ball or change-up that is likely to be pulled is called by the catcher, Adam Everett will give Inge a verbal cue that can't be picked up by the third-base coach.

It can help Inge "cheat" toward the line as Everett shades toward third -- another case of playing the percentages.

Double plays

On double-play ground balls, a third baseman is throwing to a moving target at second base in the same fashion as he leads the first baseman. Inge tries to throw the ball directly over the second-base bag, chest-high. A low throw can set the second baseman up for a nasty pounding from the oncoming runner.

Inge likes to position himself in a double-play situation slightly open and turned ever so slightly toward second base as he prepares for the throw and a shot at getting two outs.

Fielding bunts

If runners are on second and first, Inge must be careful that he does not charge a bunt too quickly and leave third base wide open for the front runner. He again adopts a slightly open stance that enables him to keep an eye on the advancing runner at second.

On bunts for base hits, Inge races on an angle toward the line. It enables him to field the bunt at the same time he generates momentum toward first base. His throw will be purposely aimed 5-to-10 feet to the left of first base because of the "slice" effect of the ball as it leaves his hand. Because of the sidespin it will tail back toward the first baseman's glove.

Cutoffs and relays

On a relay throw from left field, Inge positions himself along a line parallel from the back of the pitching mound to the third-base line. This provides the left-fielder a target to home plate at the same time it allows Inge maximum vision of the baserunners in case he cuts off the throw and has a play on an advancing baserunner.

A left fielder such as Carlos Guillen has a bit of a high-arcing fade to his throws, which Inge takes into account as he lines up right of the target line he would otherwise create.

Handling tough right-hand hitters

Inge actually prefers fielding against the guys who don't hit baseballs as much as they shoot them from cannons. Because of his powerful arm, he plays on the back cut of grass, almost in left field.

What he doesn't enjoy: a bases-loaded situation late in a game, the infield pulled in, and a batter like Vladimir Guerrero at the plate. It's like staring down the barrel of a battleship gun. It was just as intimidating in the days when Gary Sheffield played for an opposing team.

"You just try and get low and get ready," Inge says.

Positioning for a tag

A ball is hit to right field for a single. A runner sprinting from first base has third base on his mind. This can create one of the tenser moments for a third baseman. Inge estimates that nine times out of 10 the ball will cross the runner at some point as he approaches the bag at third.

Inge ideally hopes to provide a target on the inside part of the bag, which enables him to sweep backward with the tag. Sometimes, as a throw bores into the dirt, he has no choice but to drop one leg in front of the bag -- and prepare for the oncoming spikes and collision.

Studying a master

The Seattle Mariners' Adrian Beltre is generally regarded as the finest third baseman in the American League, if not in all of baseball. Inge is no lower than second on the list, but Beltre rules.

"He's so solid with his hands, knowing the hops right off the bat," Inge says. "And I've never seen anyone throw a baseball like he does: How he can stop on a dime and whip it from here (Inge extends his throwing arm backward). He's one of the best I've ever seen.

"Brooks Robinson, I've seen lots of film on him, how he wasn't afraid to dive for a ball, and more impressively, how he would catch a pop-up in foul territory, turn and flip that ball right on the money. If you want a model, for good reason he's one of the best."

Brandon Inge on throwing to first base: "I try not to look too much ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit Newsw)