Hens catcher Brad Davis, left, congratulates pitcher Zach Miner after the Hens closed out Game 1.
the blade/ANDY MORRISON
A 30-something big league veteran would be forgiven for grudgingly accepting a demotion from the five-star life.
Don Kelly does not think in such terms.
A week after the Tigers designated the 32-year-old utilityman for assignment last week, Kelly text-messaged manager Jim Leyland that he was glad to be in Toledo.
Photo gallery: Mud Hens vs. Durham: Aug. 11
"I thanked him for the opportunity," he said of remaining with the Tigers' organization. "It's about coming down here and getting ready to help them out if they need me to."
The tears Kelly fought back a week ago gave way to a new sense of hope Saturday as he helped the Hens sweep a wild pseudo-doubleheader against the Durham Bulls at Fifth Third Field. The jack-of-all-positions might not be done with the Tigers just yet.
Kelly arrived in Toledo with the promise of everyday at-bats and the chance to rediscover the swing that abandoned him entirely in Detroit. Saturday, he reached base three times and had two highlight defensive plays in the Mud Hens' third and fourth straight wins. The Hens won 7-2 in the completion of a game suspended in the fourth inning Friday night before rallying for a 4-2 victory in a seven-inning nightcap that nearly featured a bench-clearing brawl.
Depending on whom you asked, it was a feel-good night in this long summer for the Hens.
That did not go for starter Drew Smyly and manager Phil Nevin. Both were ejected in the second inning of Game 2 when an ill-timed fastball from Smyly hit Nevin Ashley in the upper leg.
The throw came a pitch after former Mud Hen Will Rhymes briefly stood in place at home plate admiring his two-run blast off the lightpost in right field, and umpire Adam Hamari judged it to be no coincidence. Nevin argued for more than a minute.
Smyly was not immediately available afterward.
"You have to pitch inside in this game," Nevin said. "You give up a long home run to a left-handed hitter, now you've got a big right-hander coming up, you have to pitch inside. I don't think he was throwing at him. You'd have to ask him. It's part of baseball. Unfortunately, things get out of hands sometimes."
The grudge carried into the seventh inning when hard-throwing closer Bruce Rondon, who was called up this week from Double-A Erie and called in Saturday to protect a two-run lead, threw his first pitch behind Rhymes. Rondon and Rhymes stared each other down, and the benches leisurely cleared, though nothing came of the incident beyond Rondon's ejection.
In the end, Collin Balester closed out the Bulls and ensured the focus remained largely on the Hens' improving play — and their valuable new piece.
"We're playing the game hard like we have all year," Nevin said. "I like the personnel we have right now, and a lot of that has to do with Don Kelly. He walks into the clubhouse and makes you better from the start. Guys rally around that."
Kelly, who spent part of 2009 with the Hens before joining the Tigers for good, is a career .231 hitter whose time in Detroit was wearing thin. He batted .175 with one home run and seven RBIs in Detroit this season and was used primarily as a defensive replacement.
But the Tigers appreciated his versatility and unfailingly positive attitude in the clubhouse. Leyland said he wanted to cry after designating Kelly for assignment to clear room for newly activated outfielder Andy Dirks.
Detroit had 10 days to trade, release, or, if he cleared waivers, outright Kelly to the minors — an assignment he could have refused in order to become a free agent. But like Brandon Inge last season, Kelly chose to stay with the organization.
"You have to treat this like a good opportunity," Kelly said. "If you come down with a bad attitude, it doesn't do you or the team any good."