When the Mud Hens left Toledo on July 22 for an eight-game road trip, things didn't look good at all.
The good news was the Hens were in second place, just one-half game behind Columbus in the International League's West Division.
But there was plenty of bad news: Toledo had lost two in a row to Syracuse, one of the league's worst teams. The Hens were playing four games each against two of the best teams in the league in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Buffalo - on the road, no less. And Toledo was without one of its top hitters, first baseman Andy Barkett, who went on the disabled list near the end of the homestand.
So how do you explain the Hens completing a 5-3 road trip last night and coming home in first place in the International League West.
"Our guys have really stepped up," said Hens manager Larry Parrish before his team faced Buffalo last night. "This was one of the toughest trips of the year against two of the best teams in the league. Even if we don't win [and they certainly didn't last night], it's a good road trip. If we win, it's a great road trip."
Despite the 14-3 loss last night, it should be considered a great road trip since the Hens start a homestand 2 1/2 games in front of the second-place Columbus Clippers.
The key for the Hens on the trip was been pitching. Toledo entered last night's contest with a deceiving 4.62 ERA for the road trip, a number
that was bloated by the team's 19-18 loss to Scranton last Sunday. Of course, last night only increased that figure.
But if you take two games out of the equation, Toledo pitchers posted a 2.41 ERA in the other six games. The staff allowed three earned runs or less in those five wins.
"We've pitched pretty well against a couple of good teams," Parrish said. "Andy Van Hekken threw really well on Wednesday, especially considering the defense we played behind him."
The Hens made four errors behind Van Hekken, including three in the first inning, but the left-hander held the Bisons in check for five innings and claimed his ninth win of the season when the Hens prevailed 5-4.
The Toledo offense has struggled recently. While the Hens rank fourth in the IL with a .276 team batting average, the team has hit just .248 on the road trip before last night. When you take away the 18 runs and 19 hits the Hens compiled Sunday, the team scored just 20 runs and hit just .211 in six games before last night.
Many of the problems on offense stem from the team's shorthanded situation. Nook Logan was promoted to Detroit early in the trip, Barkett remains injured, and Joe Vitiello left for family reasons before the series in Scranton ended.
The Hens had just 10 position players, including two catchers, available in the final two games of the Buffalo series. Infielder Warren Morris played some games in the outfield, and Rich Gomez was promoted from Double-A Erie to give Toledo enough players.
Tigers outfielder Craig Monroe will start a rehab assignment with the Hens tonight, and Logan will rejoin the team when they begin their six-game homestand. But Parrish said he does not know when Vitiello or Barkett will return to the lineup. The shortage will be made worse when shortstop Danny Klassen leaves the team after today's game to join the Canadian Olympic team.
Sources indicate the Tigers are attempting to sign Benji Gil to replace Klassen. Gil, 31, who played eight major league seasons with Texas and Anaheim, began this year with Triple-A Iowa of the Pacific Coast League.
He hit .257 in 36 games for Iowa before being released on May 19. He then signed with the Tijuana Toros in the Mexican League, where he batted .278 with a pair of home runs, 21 RBIs and 10 stolen bases in 33 games.
"We've been short, player-wise, this whole trip," Parrish said.
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