A baseball regular season, at any professional level, is not a sprint but a marathon to the finish.
Toledo's Chad Huffman has played large role in Toledo's late-season surge to the playoffs.
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The International League season is no different with its 140-game schedule. Along the journey, each team has its highs, lows, conflict, resolution, and for the lucky few, it ends with rejoicing and celebration.
For the Toledo Mud Hens, the marathon was punctuated by a torrid two-week-plus sprint to the end that has playoff baseball at Fifth Third Field for the first time since 2007 and set off a champagne-soaked celebration Sunday in the visiting clubhouse at Huntington Park in Columbus.
The Mud Hens charged past Columbus and Indianapolis for the IL West Division title and a date with the Durham Bulls in the first round of the playoffs with games Wednesday and Thursday at home followed by games Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (the latter two if necessary) in Durham.
Playoff hopes seemed far-fetched in mid-August, when the Mud Hens trailed Columbus and Indianapolis by 4½ games and had multiple teams to pass for a wild card bid. But with 11 games left on the schedule against the Clippers and Indians, there remained time for a comeback if things broke right.
At a time when the team was struggling, Toledo collectively put its head down, came together, and slowly worked its way back in the postseason picture.
“We are grinders, that’s probably the best way to put it,” Mud Hens first baseman Jason Krizan said. “We are going to grind away. We are going to have our days when we lose. That’s just baseball. But then we are going to have our days when we come out to play. Now, we have a five-game series with Durham and we have to come to play.”
After losing 15-2 to Rochester on Aug. 16, the Mud Hens went 12-5 in the final 17 games to finish 73-66 overall. Included in that streak was an 8-3 mark against the Clippers and Indians that allowed Toledo to take over the top spot in the division.
Fate also was on the Mud Hens’ side — an early-season rainout at Pawtucket never was made up, and the team finished a half-game ahead of Indianapolis and Columbus, each of whom was 73-67.
“If you look how we got here and look where we were two weeks ago, everyone came together, bought in, and just found a way to win,” designated hitter Chad Huffman said. “Every night it felt like there was someone different coming through.”
So what went right for the Mud Hens in the past few weeks?
■ Huffman provided inspiration, clutch hitting: When manager Doug Mientkiewicz was asked what factored into Toledo’s hot streak to end the season, one of the first things he mentioned was Huffman toughing out a foot injury.
“I think Huffy playing on one leg had to inspire some guys,” Mientkiewicz said.
It wasn’t just moral support the veteran provided. He came up with huge hits including a two-out, two-run homer in the eighth inning of a 3-2 home win Aug. 26 against Columbus. In Friday’s win at Columbus, Christin Stewart and Huffman hit back-to-back solo homers in the eighth inning that were the difference in another 3-2 win.
Stewart also was key, putting together an 11-game hitting streak down the stretch that included three homers and eight RBIs.
■ Reinforcements from Double-A Erie: Toledo had to absorb the loss of key players Ronny Rodriguez and Jim Adduci, among others, to Detroit during the regular season. But late in the year, the Mud Hens received a boost from Double-A call-ups like Matt Hall, Daz Cameron, and Spencer Turnbull.
In two crucial starts vs. Columbus during the playoff push, Turnbull was brilliant with a 2.03 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 13⅓ innings. Cameron has been a reliable defensive force in center field, and Hall has turned into a bona fide top-of-the-rotation starter with a 2.67 ERA in 10 starts in Toledo.
Jacob Robson was called up from Erie earlier in the season and has played a key role with his speed (seven steals) and solid hitting (.305 average). Slick-fielding young shortstop Willi Castro, acquired by Detroit in the Leonys Martin trade with Cleveland, is the most recent Erie player to make his way to Toledo.
■ Pitching prowess: The starting pitching took a major step forward during the closing weeks of the season. Hall and Turnbull, paired with a resurgent Jacob Turner and the steady Warwick Saupold, gave Toledo a good foundation to its rotation down the stretch. Turner allowed just four earned runs in his final three starts of the regular season.
“If you don’t pitch, it’s hard to rattle off long streaks, and we pitched really well the last few weeks,” Mientkiewicz said. “It all boils down to pitching. Turner came back a different guy. You have to have quality starts in a row. That’s the only way you are going to rattle off wins.”
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