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Published: 5/2/2012

Mud Hens find offense with small-ball play

BY DAVID BRIGGS
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Mud Hens first baseman Rawley Bishop slaps the tag on Pawtucket’s Tony Thomas a little too late during a pickoff attempt Tuesday night at Fifth Third Field. The two teams will meet again today at 6:30 p.m. Mud Hens first baseman Rawley Bishop slaps the tag on Pawtucket’s Tony Thomas a little too late during a pickoff attempt Tuesday night at Fifth Third Field. The two teams will meet again today at 6:30 p.m.
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Mud Hens manager Phil Nevin gathered his team in the clubhouse Monday, and addressed the elephant in the room.

A lineup that averaged eight runs per game in slugger Brad Eldred's final 10 games in Toledo had gone silent without him.

The Hens scored a total of six runs in a three-game weekend sweep by Gwinnett.

The question was inevitable: Would the first-place Hens fall back to earth without the minor league's hottest hitter?

"People start writing about it, people start talking about it, and those things get pumped into your head a little bit," Nevin said. "You might start thinking about it. Look, it's a different team, there's no question about it.

"We've got to manufacture more runs. We can't sit back and wait for a homer. ... You just have to play a different brand of baseball."

Toledo displayed that brand Tuesday in its 8-3 victory over Pawtucket at Fifth Third Field.

With utility man Justin Henry as the model for the new, small-ball Hens, Toledo required only one extra-base hit -- a double by Henry -- to decisively snap its three-game losing streak.

After a 45-minute rain delay, Head and company exacted baseball's version of death by a thousand cuts.

Head's lead-off single off Pawtucket starter Doug Mathis set off a two-run first inning, and the runs continued to pour forth.

Toledo, which had 10 singles and six walks, matched its entire weekend production by the fourth inning.

That provided plenty of support for Adam Wilk, who found just the salve he needed in Toledo.

After the 24-year-old lefty was blistered for 11 runs over 11 innings in three starts with the Tigers, he stalled the division-leading Paw Sox.

Wilk, demoted last week from Detroit, allowed one run on three hits over seven innings, at one point retiring 13 straight hitters.

Just as important to Nevin was the return of the offense -- and the emergence of Henry.

As Wilk said, "When you have runs, it's always comforting."

Henry, who went 4-for-5 with two runs and an RBI, is the template for a Hens offense without Eldred, who hit .388 with 13 home runs and 35 RBIs before being called up to Detroit last week.

A ninth-round pick out of Mississippi in the 2007 draft, he has batted .289 over six minor-league seasons, earning his place as much for his bat as his speed and versatility.

This season, he has played second base, shortstop, left field and center field.

He has also batted first, second, seventh, and eighth in the team's lineup.

"The last couple of years, I've kind of played everywhere except behind the plate and pitcher," said Henry, who is batting .292 in 17 games. "I'm a guy who puts the ball in play, runs well, plays a lot of spots. Hopefully the versatility is a good asset for me."

NOTES: Nevin said Jerad Head will get X-Rays after suffering an unspecified hand injury Tuesday. ... Detroit manager Jim Leyland and pitching coach Jeff Jones will be at Fifth Third Field today to watch Doug Fister's rehab start, though Leyland said the 28-year-old starter's return to the Tigers' rotation will not pivot on his performance. "Basically, all I'm hoping that happens tomorrow is he gets through the game and he's 100 percent healthy," Leyland said. Fister, who will be on a 75-pitch limit tonight in his first start since injuring his left rib cage April 8, is expected to start for Detroit on Monday in Seattle. ... The Hens' rainout Monday against Gwinnett will be made up as part of a May 11 doubleheader at the Braves' Coolray Field. Gwinnett does not return to Toledo this season. ... Former Tigers prospect Andrew Miller, on a 30-day rehab assignment for Pawtuckett, threw two scoreless innings of relief Tuesday. Miller has a 6.30 ERA in nine Paw Sox appearances. ... Announced attendance was 3,991.

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.



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