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Published: Monday, 6/9/2003

International League notebook: Mud Hens hoping Van Hekken finds himself at Double-A Erie

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Before this season began, everyone was penciling pitcher Andy Van Hekken into the Detroit Tigers' rotation.

Instead, Van Hekken now finds himself down in Double-A, pitching in the rotation of the Erie SeaWolves, after his demotion from Toledo on Wednesday. How did a guy who threw a shutout in his first major league start last September fall so far, so fast?

Hens pitching coach Jeff Jones thinks part of the 23-year-old's problems this season may have stemmed from the spring-training troubles that cost the lefty a spot in the Tiger rotation.

“Andy climbed the ladder quickly and had success at the major league level,” Jones said. “But he didn't have a good spring, and that carried over into the season. I think things started weighing on his mind.”

Jones agreed with many observers who said this year's Van Hekken, who was 3-6 with a 6.41 ERA in 11 starts for the Hens, bore little resemblance to last year's model, who went 5-0 with a 1.82 ERA in seven Toledo starts on his way to the majors.

“He just didn't pitch down [in the strike zone] consistently,” Jones said of Van Hekken. “His breaking ball is better than I had seen, but his fastball and change-up were consistently up in the zone.

“In his delivery, after looking at some tape, we saw a couple of minor things that we addressed. His velocity was down a little bit from last year, and he admitted that at times he might try to create a little more velocity, and that caused him to lose consistency.”

Jones also said Van Hekken didn't feel comfortable pitching at Fifth Third Field. “He kind of had a mental block pitching in Toledo,” Jones said. “He mentioned that he had a hard time focusing here.”

And Van Hekken's numbers highlighted his troubles at home: The southpaw was 1-5 with an 8.01 ERA in eight starts at Fifth Third Field, compared to a 2-1 mark and 3.43 ERA in three road appearances.

One of those road victories was a complete-game, four-hit shutout at Buffalo on May 5. “Andy seemed more aggressive on the road,” Jones said. “He pitched down [in the strike zone] and got all of his pitches over. He was working quickly, and he was in total control against Buffalo.”

Jones expects that Van Hekken will find himself while pitching in Erie. “When he goes to Erie he'll relax, not put pressure on himself, and his consistency will come back,” Jones said. “He's a hard-working kid, and I expect him to be back here this year.”

WELCOME ABOARD: The Hens added infielder Brant Ust to the roster on Thursday to replace Warren Morris, who was promoted to Detroit.

Ust hit .286 with five homers and 25 RBIs in 45 games for Double-A Erie. Primarily a third baseman, Ust saw action at every field position except first base and center field.

TIMING IS EVERYTHING: The Mud Hens picked a good time to face Pawtucket. The Red Sox, who rank among the top teams in the International League this season, have lost several key players recently.

Infielder Freddy Sanchez, who ranked among IL leaders in batting average (.384), on-base percentage (.476) and runs scored (38), was promoted to Boston on May 30.

Last Tuesday Boston recalled Hector Almonte, who had a 3-0 record, nine saves and a 1.73 ERA as Pawtucket's closer.

And late last week the PawSox learned that slugger Julio Zuleta, who ranks among the IL leaders in home runs (12) and RBIs (49) would sign a contract to play with a club in Japan.

WALKING WOUNDED: What's amazing is not Louisville's 12-game win streak that ended last week, but that the Bats did it



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