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It may have been the rain. Or perhaps it was the cold, biting winds that swirled and gusted around Fifth Third Field on Friday.
Whatever the reason, the Mud Hens’ bats never warmed up and Toledo suffered a 3-1 loss to Louisville in the Hens home opener, which was played in winds that gusted into the 30 mile-per-hour range with soft showers in the late innings.
Bats starter Jeff Francis combined with four relievers to limit Toledo to six hits. Worse, the Mud Hens wasted what few opportunities they had, going hitless in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
“It’s always good to come out of the gates strong, so this was tough,” Hens third baseman Mike Hessman said. “It’s cold and wet and rainy out there, and we just couldn’t get the big hit we needed.
“We didn’t put a lot of runs up, but in the eighth and ninth we had opportunities. That’s all you can ask for in a close game.”
For six innings Francis shut the Mud Hens out on four hits, never allowing a runner to advance past second base. He finished with six strikeouts, no walks, and threw just 77 pitches, 54 for strikes.
“He threw strikes and changed speeds really well,” Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish said of Francis. “He really had us off-balance. And he did it really efficiently. On a cold, windy day he pitched like a veteran.”
Francis threw 15 first-pitch strikes to 21 batters faced and did not reach a three-ball count to a Toledo batter until the sixth.
“He really had it working — the ball was moving all over the place,” Louisville manager Jim Riggleman said of Francis. “He was changing speeds — it was classic, professional pitching out there.”
Meanwhile Toledo starter Kyle Lobstein struggled with his command. He did not walk a batter, but he reached a three-ball count to seven of the 17 hitters he faced and threw the same number of pitches as Francis, 77, but in just 3⅓ innings.
“He threw a ton of pitches today,” Parrish said of Lobstein. “He got to a lot of 3-2 counts and just wasn’t sharp.”
Louisville scored twice on Lobstein in the second as Mike Costanzo hit a long home run to straight-away center, followed by a double by Ruben Gotay and an RBI single by Corky Miller.
In the fourth Lobstein gave up a leadoff double to dead center by Mike Wilson, and one out later reliever Nate Robertson allowed an RBI single to Gotay.
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That was the last run the Hens allowed as four relievers — Robertson, Jhan Marinez, Melvin Mercedes, and Blaine Hardy — gave up just four hits in 5⅔ innings.
“I was happy with the way they came in and attacked the strike zone,” Parrish said of his bullpen.
The problem was the Mud Hens never were able to score enough runs to come back.
Toledo scored once in the seventh when Hessman doubled off Louisville’s Chad Rogers, moved to third on a passed ball, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Ben Guez.
That was it for the Hens, although they did mount dangerous rallies in the final two innings.
In the eighth Daniel Fields singled off Rogers and moved to second when Rogers threw wildly to first on a pickoff attempt. One out later Fields was picked off second on a grounder back to the mound by Ezequiel Carrera.
Carrera stole second and third, and Hernan Perez drew a walk before stealing second, but J.D. Martinez struck out with runners on second and third.
In the ninth Hessman was hit by a pitch, and both Jordan Lennerton and Fields walked to load the bases with two outs, but Danny Worth popped out to shallow center to end the game.
“We were right where we wanted to be, and with a ball in the gap we could have won it,” Parrish said. “But we just couldn’t get the big hit.
“It would have been easy to turn this into a win with one big knock — and we had that chance twice.”