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Published: Monday, 6/29/2009

It figures: Statistics prove Hens need help

BY JOHN WAGNER
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Former football coach Bill Parcells once said, "You are what your record says you are," and that's almost always true in baseball.

A win Thursday over Durham gave the Mud Hens a 33-39 record at the midway point of the 2009 season. But the Hens have lost three in a row since, which has stunted the team's chances of being something more - and something better - than their record says they are.

There were hopes that Toledo's 8-2 start to the season was a portent of good things. But a 2-8 finish to the month of April and a terrible 10-20 record in May, have forced the Hens to scramble just to get back to the .500 mark.

The biggest disappointment for this team has been its offense, which is barely managing to score four runs per game. While the team leads the International League with 88 stolen bases, a .245 team batting average ranks near the bottom of the league.

"We've had some disappointing stretches [on offense], no doubt," Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish admitted. "We haven't been very good at 'handling' the bat - getting a guy over [to third] from second with no one out, or getting a guy in from third. We have failed miserably at getting guys in from third with fewer than two outs.

"I'd hate to think about the number of games we would have won if we could have just put a ball in play."

The Hens have hit just .214 with runners in scoring position this year. Even Buffalo, which has the worst offense in the league, is batting .219 in such situations, while the rest of the IL is hitting .241 or better.

Veterans such as Mike Hessman, who had 31 and 34 home runs the past two seasons here, and Brent Clevlen, who hit .279 with 22 homers and 82 RBIs last season, have not produced this year.

Hessman is batting just .167 with 10 homers in 66 games, while Clevlen is hitting .266 but has just six homers and 29 RBIs in 68 games.

But the biggest concern has been the team's inordinate number of strikeouts. With the 18 whiffs in Indianapolis yesterday, the Mud Hens now have 700; no other Triple-A team is within 100 of that total, which is the largest in minor-league baseball.

"Yeah, [the strikeouts] are a concern," hitting coach Leon "Bull" Durham admitted. "There are times when you have to put the ball in play. When you're just striking out and not putting the ball in play, that's not going to work.

"We've got a young team, and that's why [we're striking out a lot]. But they throw breaking balls in Double-A. I don't know if guys are putting too much pressure on themselves to hit the breaking ball.

"We're not swinging at 'strike' breaking balls. We're striking at the ones that are just the 'show-me' pitches."

The Toledo pitching staff, which was expected to be the team's biggest concern when the season started, has had its ups and downs. The staff stands 10th in the IL with a 3.99 ERA, a surprisingly low ranking that reflects the strength of pitching in the league this year more than anything else. Last year that 3.99 ERA would have ranked seventh in the IL.

The rotation has a 3.84 ERA, with LHP Lucas French (2.98 ERA) and RHP Ruddy Lugo (3.83) leading the way.

"I think our starters have done a nice job of giving us innings," pitching coach A.J. Sager said. "When we look at the bullpen card, a lot of times we see [relievers] who have a lot of rest.

"As a group, they've also done what you want starters to do: keep you in games."

The bullpen has been a disappointment, though. As a group, the relievers have a 4.17 ERA; what's worse, they have blown 12 saves, including five by Casey Fien, three by Freddy Dolsi and two by Fu-Te Ni.

"We have guys with pretty good arms down there [in the bullpen]," Sager said. "Sometimes when guys have 'stuff' they try to rely on that.

"Stuff is great to have, but your focus has to be what you do with that stuff in terms of getting hitters out."

The defense behind those pitchers has been solid, but not spectacular.

Two areas which could improve are at shortstop, where Brent Dlugach has made an IL-high 14 errors, and behind the plate, where Hen catchers rank in the lower half of the league in terms of runners caught stealing.

"I thought we had some slippage [on defense] when we were going through our rough streak, but it seems to have settled down a little bit," Parrish said. "It's no coincidence that when it settled down, we got better.

"When we weren't swinging the bats well, we had to play mistake-free [ball]. When we made [a mistake], we'd give the other team two or three runs, and that was it."

Contact John Wagner at:

jwagner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6481.



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