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Tigers stick it to Toronto Inge snaps slump with key hits Detroit wins third straight to stay atop the AL Central

TORONTO -- Apparently, all it took was a roof over his head for Brandon Inge to snap an epic early-season slump.

The Detroit third baseman who entered the game just 1 for 25 this season -- collected two hits, including his first home run, and drove in three runs as the Tigers held off the Toronto Blue Jays, 5-4, in the opener of a four-game series in Rogers Centre.

The Tigers (6-3) won their third straight and have managed to stay atop the AL Central despite a miserable time at the plate. Like most teams, the defending AL champions have played through a spate of brutal weather thus far and it's caused plenty of struggles for their hitters.

Detroit entered Thursday's game with a .236 team batting average (ninth in the AL) and had scored only 32 runs in its eight games. Its .322 on-base percentage was 12th in the AL.

"It's hard for everybody," manager Jim Leyland said.

Inge, batting in the No. 9 hole, got the Tigers' offense moving by cranking a solo home run deep into the second deck in left with one out in the third off Toronto starter Tomo Ohka. He capped a three-run fourth that put the Tigers up, 4-0, by rapping an RBI single to left on a 1-2 pitch and added a sacrifice fly to right in the sixth to extend Detroit's lead to 5-2.

"Brandon had some real good at-bats tonight," Leyland said. "I actually liked the sacrifice fly the best. He had a big night for us. He was too good a player to continue that [struggle]."

"I was just sticking with it," said Inge, who hit 27 home runs during the regular season and batted .353 during the World Series last year. "There are so many ups and downs. You go with what you need to do and it will eventually come around. There are times you go up there and feel terrible. But not once in this stretch have I felt that way.

"I was getting it on the sweet spot of the bat and not getting any hits. It's one of those things that gets magnified so much more because it's the first 20 at-bats rather than 20 during the season."

Sitting on an 0-for-20 rut through six games, Inge was given Tuesday night off in Baltimore. He got his first hit Wednesday and finally did real damage Thursday.

The 0 for 20 was pretty historic.

Since 1970, only three other major leaguers were 0 for 20 or worse in their team's first six games and two were Hall of Famers (Willie Stargell, 0 for 21 for 1970 Pirates and Ozzie Smith, 0 for 26 for the 1979 Padres).

The third guy? None other than current Bisons manager and Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Torey Lovullo, who was 0 for 20 for the '89 Tigers after getting manager Sparky Anderson's overbilling in spring training.

"It's good to help the team, even more than just getting something for myself," Inge said. "These guys have been picking me up so far."

The next Tiger that needs to break out is Gary Sheffield. Sheffield, acquired in an offseason trade with the New York Yankees, went 1 for 3 with two walks and is just 4 for 32 on the season. The Rogers Centre crowd of 20,416 serenaded him with Darryl Strawberry-like chants of "Ga-ry, Ga-ry, Ga-ry" much of the night.

The Blue Jays got a two-run homer from Aaron Hill in the fourth and a two-run eighth that included Greg Zaun's sacrifice fly and Lyle Overbay's RBI pinch double. The big news from the Toronto perspective, however, came in the first when third baseman Troy Glaus strained a heel while trying to run out a double-play grounder and had to be replaced by John McDonald.

Starter Mike Maroth (2-0) went six innings for the Tigers. Joel Zumaya pitched the final two innings for his first save.

The series continues here tonight at 7 with a terrific pitching matchup of Toronto's Roy Halladay (1-0, 3.46 ERA) against Detroit's Jeremy Bonderman (0-0, 3.75).

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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