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Published: Monday, 5/6/2013

COMMENTARY

Hens’ hurlers need batters to start hitting

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

The Mud Hens scored one run Sunday afternoon. They scored one run in 13 innings on Saturday. They scored two times on Friday.

These are the times that try a pitcher’s soul.

The Toledo pitching staff is pretty good. Combined, the Hens sport the second-best earned-run average — 3.22 — among International League pitching corps.

“The numbers are very good, even excellent,” Toledo manager Phil Nevin said.

The results are not.

Charlotte won 4-1 Sunday and left the Hens in the dust as the only team in the IL with single digits in the win column.

The pitching for the most part deserves better.

On Saturday night, for example, Jose Alvarez pitched seven shutout innings and left with the game tied 0-0. The Hens lost in 13 innings, 2-1.

Alvarez owns a glittering 1.29 ERA. He has struck out 30 while walking just eight batters. His offensive teammates, on the other hand, have scored 16 runs in his six starts, with eight of those runs in one game. His record is 1-2.

“I would like to win, sure,” Alvarez said. “But I can only control the pitches. I can’t control if we hit. So I don’t look at it as pressure. We’re in a tough stretch and my job is to keep it as close as I can and give my team an opportunity to win.”

Nevin said the weight on a pitching staff can be back-breaking when a team isn’t hitting.

“It’s huge when a pitcher is out there feeling like he can’t give up a run, or another run,” the Hens’ skipper said. “They end up pitching too fine.

“You know, nobody has a 0.00 ERA. It is a game of limiting damage. Giving up one run is a lot better than giving up three. The problem comes when a guy feels like he can’t even afford to give up the one.”

That may have preyed on Hens’ starter Shawn Hill in Sunday’s series finale before 7,515 fans at Fifth Third Field.

He scattered four hits and gave up a single run in the early innings, then retired the Knights on 19 total pitches in the middle three innings. In the seventh, though, he was touched for a single and an untimely walk before Drew Garcia, a shortstop with a sub-.190 batting average, stepped in.

Here’s where Hill may have tried to be too fine, too perfect, too focused on painting the edge. And when one of those pitches misses, it tends to catch a tad too much of the plate. Garcia, batting from the left side, got a fastball on the outside half and sliced a lazy liner into the left-field corner that plated both base-runners for a 3-0 Charlotte lead.

Against a Mud Hen lineup missing much of its major-league-caliber presence because of injuries, and with just one of nine batters in Sunday’s order hitting above .240, three runs were more than enough.

So the Hens, who host Rochester in a four-game set starting tonight, are 8-23 with 11 losses in 13 games. Those numbers are hard to jibe with a pitching staff that has been sufficiently stingy.

The ray of sunshine for Toledo’s hurlers, and Alvarez in particular, is that the parent Tigers, or any other interested major-league team, will look at the full array of statistics, not just the win-loss record.

“The personal numbers are more important than the record if a big-league team is looking for a call-up or someone to sign,” Alvarez, a lefty who turns 24 today, said. “But it’s a team game and I’m part of a team. I had a good seven innings [Saturday] night, but we lost. Nobody likes losing.”

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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