Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish tried to play a joke on Toledo starter Derek Hankins before Sunday’s game against Rochester at Fifth Third Field.
“We told him to run out to the mound, come back to the dugout and then run back out there,” Parrish said. “That way he could pretend he was already in the second inning.”
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Considering that Hankins entered Sunday’s game with a 21.00 ERA in the first inning this season — he had given up at least one run in all six previous starts — the 30-year-old right-hander might have taken that advice.
Instead Hankins retired the Red Wings in order in the first, then cruised to a complete-game, three-hit shutout in pitching the Hens to a 7-0 victory.
“I don’t know if it was bad luck or what, but I was more focused in the first inning,” Hankins said. “I had a little bit of chip on my shoulder because I haven’t gotten through one.
“Once I got through the first inning I could breathe a little bit.”
Hankins retired the first 14 batters he faced, and he didn’t allow a Rochester baserunner past first base until the seventh in pitching Toledo to its third straight victory.
The key for Hankins was his ability to throw strikes. He threw a first-pitch strike to 20 of the 30 hitters he faced, fell behind 2-0 only once, and threw 74 of his 113 pitches for strikes.
“That was what I did last year before I went [to Korea], and I thought I had a lot of success [doing that],” Hankins said. “If you get ahead of hitters, you can read swings and use your defense. …
“That’s the key for me: Throwing strike one and using my defense. I’m not saying that’s going to result in a complete-game shutout every time … but I feel I can be successful doing that.”
It helped that after Hankins posted a 1-2-3 top of the first, the Mud Hens sent nine batters to the plate in the bottom of the inning and scored five times. With one out, Trevor Crowe’s pop to center was dropped by Wings shortstop Pedro Florimon for a two-base error, and Hernan Perez quickly doubled him home.
After a walk to Mike Hessman, Tyler Collins singled to score Perez, and a single by James McCann brought Hessman home. Luis Exposito’s sacrifice fly plate Collins, and McCann stole second before scoring on a single by Jordan Lennerton.
“It’s about grinding through good at-bats,” Parrish said about his team’s five-run rally. “We’re working on having guys stay on the ball through their swings, and they are doing that. When the other team makes an error, that’s a point where a good team will put a crooked number up.”
Hankins said the five-run first allowed him to relax, and a strong curve allowed him to keep the Rochester hitters off-balance.
“My curve was really good in the bullpen,” he said. “I think the mechanical changes I have made between starts helped it, because I got over it a little more and it was breaking late at the plate.
“I was throwing it 1-2, 3-2 — all sorts of different counts.”
Hessman gave the Hens another run when he led off the third with a home run, his tenth this season. He now has 399 minor-league home runs, tied for the fourth-highest total in history, and his 254 homers in International League action are four shy of the league record.
Clay High School product A.J. Achter allowed just one hit in three scoreless innings against Toledo. The Hens closed the scoring with a run in the eighth on a two-out RBI double by McCann.
NOTES: The Tigers signed IF Troy Hanzawa as a minor-league free agent and assigned him to Toledo. Hanzawa, who hit .132 in in 14 games with Lehigh Valley, will be added to the Hens roster today. … Marcus Lemon was sent to Double-A Erie to make room on the roster for Hanzawa. … RHP Corey Knebel officially joined the Mud Hens Sunday. With Hanzawa and Knebel on the roster, Toledo is back to the limit of 25 players. … Perez, Collins, and Lennerton each swung a pink bat Sunday in honor of Mother’s Day. The trio combined for five of the Hens’ eight hits.