'Hens Adjust to New Territory

It's only May but the Toledo Mud Hens are in an unfamiliar third place. It's a novelty for a team only seven months removed from back-to-back International League (IL) titles, but you can hardly fault them.

They have already gone through their slumps, bumps, and options to Detroit. Jordan Tata is currently on the disabled list nursing a sore right throwing shoulder; and Jose Mesa's injury set up closer Aquilino Lopez's major league promotion- which subsequently resulted in four blown saves for the ‘Hens in the last two weeks

Even the manager, Larry Parish hasn't dressed this season as he recovers from surgery performed on April 4.

The household names who were expected to lead the team have played limited roles and after all those issues and a 2-5 start it's almost unfathomable that the ‘Hens are in this position- only a close third.

They are currently five games back from the division leading Indianapolis Indians who they are 1-2 against this season, and two and a half games behind Lousville.

Even though he was brilliant enough to merit the nickname "Big Red" last season after hitting an April club record of 10 home runs for Detroit, Chris Shelton's April has been significantly quieter this year. Shelton only has three home runs and eleven extra base hits thus far, but that isn't even the most troubling storyline of the short-lived season.

Zach Miner, who stifled AAA batters last season en route to a 6-0 start with a 2.82 E.R.A before recording seven more wins with the Tigers, has also done a complete role reversal. Through his first five starts Miner is 0-3, with two no-decisions and an E.R.A nearly three times as high as it was last year before his promotion to the majors. Now Miner is retooling a flaw in his pitching mechanics that may have caused his recent struggles.

During these tough times, the ‘Hens have relied on an entire cast of new players to keep them in the division race.

The complete Mud Hens starting rotation, aside from Miner, played with different teams last season and have combined for eight of this season's 11 victories.

Ron Chiavacci spent time with the Indians, and Yorman Bazardo was with the AA San Antonio Missions of the Texas league.

Dennis Tankersley the team leader in wins and E.R.A (3-1, 3.26 E.R.A) was with the AAA Memphis Redbirds of the Pacific Coast League. The most impressive of them all has been former Eerie Seawolve Virgil Vasquez who in parts of his last four games, has streaks of 12 scoreless innings, and seven scoreless innings en route to three wins and one no decision.

Still, Vasquez's recent accomplishments don't measure up to those of new-comer Timo Perez. The outfielder was signed as a free agent by the Tigers in 2007 before being relegated to the Mud Hens. At age 32, Perez isn't a prospect, but his assumed role as the Tigers outfield insurance policy is paying major dividends while he's stationed in the minors.

Before sitting for much of the four game Rochester series, Perez was seventh in the league with a .359 batting average and led the league with 28 hits. He also rattled off a 19 game hit streak earlier this season and it would have lasted longer if his effort wasn't wasted in a late game pinch hitting assignment.

Perez also led the IL with 16 runs and was tied for second in the league with 14 RBI with fellow outfielder Ryan Raburn-who has also been a present surprise.

Despite a .263 batting average, Raburn reaches base almost as much as any Mud Hen because of plate discipline that has garnered 16 walks this season. Raburn is bested by Shelton when it comes to on base percentage, still "Big Red," is plagued at the plate with 30 strikeouts.

No matter, while Shelton tries to reemerge from his batting slump and Miner fixes up his release, the new pitching unit headlined by Vasquez and Tankersley should continue to sparkle defensively. Meanwhile, Raburn, the energetic bat of Perez, and the occasional batting outburst from Mike Hessman-the team leader with seven home runs, should bolster the Mud Hens offense.

Once Lopez Tata and Parrish return and the superstars establish old form, the Mud Hens will be difficult to stop in their quest to fly home to a more familiar first place.

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