Friday, Sep 21, 2018
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David Briggs

MIRRORS OF SPORT

How the Mud Hens pulled off their magical comeback

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    Fiery Mud Hens manager Doug Mientkiewicz has been behind a furious finish that has put Toledo in the playoffs.

    Blade/Kurt Steiss

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COLUMBUS — Outside a visiting clubhouse deodorized by Budweiser and bubbly, the evidence remained Monday at Huntington Park.

Three cardboard cases of Cook’s California Champagne.

All were empty, the bottles — on ice in Toledo for 11 years — deliriously emptied by the Mud Hens the night before.

“It was an intense celebration,” manager Doug Mientkiewicz said.

And why not?

The next time we’ll see the Hens, they will be hosting the Durham Bulls on Wednesday in the International League playoffs, postseason-bound for the first time since 2007.

Imagine that.

Yeah, we can’t either.

Two weeks ago, the Hens were cooked, a 15-2 loss at Rochester dropping them to 61-61. They trailed Indianapolis and Columbus by 4½ games in the West Division, and faced worse gridlock in the wild-card race.

Calling hours were arranged, offseason plans made. Even Jim Weber, the team’s eternally hopeful longtime radio voice, went ahead and booked a flight for Friday to prep his winter cottage in Florida.

“For me, as a manager, I’m thinking, ‘OK, where did I go wrong?’” Mientkiewicz said. “It didn’t look good.”

Then ...

Darn it if Weber didn’t buy that travel insurance.

The season proved a classic B-movie thriller, complete with the edge-of-your-seat opening chase scene (37-20 start), snoozing middle (24-41 between June 6 and Aug. 16), and hero-saves-the-day ending.

Suddenly, everything came up Toledo, the bird the word.

No, we’re still not sure how the West was won.

How to explain the lights-out pitching or final at-bat magic? How the Hens allowed 15 runs in that licking at Rochester, then 38 in their next 15 games? How they won seven of those despite entering the seventh inning tied or trailing. How journeyman slugger Chad Huffman — afflicted by a case of plantar fasciitis so debilitating he reported to and from work in a walking boot the past two weeks — kept hitting homers? How the unsung sang loudest?

Take starter Spencer Turnbull, a late-season call-up who was 4-7 with a 4.47 ERA at Double-A Erie.

All the 25-year-old did in two starts in Toledo was strike out 19 hitters in 13⅓ stonewalling innings.

Nothing added up. But taken together, it was an irrepressible formula. Toledo won three of four against Columbus, two of three at Indianapolis, then three of four again at Columbus, upending the division.

“Baseball is a great game,” Huffman said. “A lot of things can happen. We’re lucky people came together and wanted to win.”

Good for the Hens.

For as much as Triple-A is about development over winning, know this: Winning matters too.

When Toledo clinched the West title Sunday with its 12th victory in 16 games, the party was on, its prospects and warhorses reminding they are but men playing a children’s game.

As the intense but jocular Mientkiewicz tells each new player to arrive in Toledo — and his beer-soaked shirt stated — “Welcome to the [manure] show.” You get the drift.

“This is what you play for,” said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, an 11-year major league veteran.

And if you are a Hens fan, what you have long rooted for.

“It’s hard to put into words,” team president and CEO Joe Napoli said before the Hens fell 8-1 in Monday’s inconsequential finale.

“The Tigers have been very frustrated by the fact they haven’t been able to deliver a competitive team to Toledo. Considering that, and our fans’ frustrations, on one hand there’s a sense of relief.

“Then there’s incredible excitement and utter elation and joy.”

With tongue pressed against cheek, I asked Mientkiewicz which was more unlikely: The Red Sox vanquishing a 3-0 series hole against the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS or the Hens’ rally from the brink of their own.

Mientkiewicz, a first baseman on that champion Boston team, smiled. He politely called the circumstances “different.”

Fair enough, but just the same, an unlikely pursuit continues.

Weber on Monday gladly canceled his flight. There is playoff baseball in Toledo to announce.

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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