How have the Mud Hens turned the International League s West Division into a runaway?
Toledo had a three-game lead after games of July 8, when Triple-A baseball took its All-Star break at about the same time Ryan Raburn and his .292 batting average were summoned up I-75 by the parent Detroit Tigers. He hasn t been seen at Fifth Third Field, where the Hens yesterday finished off a four-game sweep of Richmond, since.
Raburn was recently joined in Detroit by Mike Hessman, who took 27 home runs and 86 RBIs, both IL highs, with him. Timo Perez, the IL s leading hitter and run scorer, has been up and down to the big leagues. Ditto starting pitchers Virgil Vasquez and, now, Jordan Tata.
Ramon Santiago and Kevin Hooper, two starting infielders, went on the disabled list with broken fingers within a week s time. Hooper is done for the season; Santiago isn t expected to return until late this month.
Yet the Hens opened play yesterday afternoon with an eight-game lead and did nothing to harm that standing with a hot, steamy, 8-4 victory.
While the bottom has fallen out for West contenders Indianapolis and Louisville, both of which lost eight of 10 coming out of the All-Star break, the Hens have won 12 of 20 since starting the final stretch of the season. That s not sizzling, but considering the personnel changes, considering 10 of the games have been against IL South-leading Richmond, and considering the rest of the West has bottomed out, we can safely look toward the playoffs and the Hens bid for a third straight IL championship.
Toledo manager Mike Rojas knows the Hens weren t setting the world on fire prior to this sweep of Richmond, but he s had solid pitching as his ace in the hole.
We ve had some major [roster] changes, but our pitching has kept us in a lot of games while other [IL West] teams have struggled, Rojas said.
Absent Vasquez and Tata from several scheduled Toledo starts, Ron Chiavacci and Yorman Bazardo have been more than pleasant surprises while stabilizing the rotation. Jack Hannahan, who crushed a three-run, first-inning home run yesterday, leads the IL in on-base percentage while Henry Mateo and Chris Shelton have put together hot streaks of late to help make up for the big offensive losses. Light-hitting catcher Dane Sardinha, for goodness sake, jacked three home runs the other night.
It would have been easy for the Hens to spit the bit after losing so much firepower. It would have been easy for Rojas to throw up his hands with a roster that s basically short by two bodies. But that s not the Mud Hen way. Winning is.
All we can worry about and deal with is the guys who are here, Rojas said. Our staff works hard to get everything we can from everybody we ve got. You can t control what is out of your hands, so you just stay positive with everybody.
It s easy to stay positive when you pick up the paper every morning and see your divisional lead increasing to the point that there practically aren t any other horses in the race.
Indy and Louisville are pretty good teams, so it s surprising pulling away like we have been, Hannahan said. How have we done it? Good question. But we ve gone through the same thing the last two years with key guys getting called up. We just have good players who fill the spots and take care of business.
Sweeping another first-place team is beyond routine business. It s the Mud Hens sending a message that, despite the odds, they remain the IL s team to beat.