TigsTown MLN: How the IL West Will Be Won

Two things stand in the way of the Toledo Mud Hens' chance at first place in the West Division: the Louisville Bats and history.

Since the International League was founded in 1885, no team has ever won four straight division titles. There have been contenders such as: Columbus (1990-92), Durham (1998-00) and Toledo (2005-07) who have all came close, but no smoking that famous cigar in the end. Columbus and Toledo, however, are the only two teams to have won back-to-back Governor's Cups during their three-year division reign.

Sitting in second place at 61-51, general-esque manager Larry Parrish and his troops are closing the gap on Louisville's three and a half game lead. Come August 4th in Louisville, the battle of the West Division begins the six-game August showdown between the Bats and Mud Hens. Let's not forget about Columbus, who only trail Toledo by three games. No overlooking them, they might be a spoiler when it's all said and done.

As history would have it, Toledo is destined to fail, though. Since their move to Fifth Third Park, the Hens have had a knack of declining after the All-Star break. From 2002-2007 the Hens are 59-41 (.534) before All-Star break. Following the All-Star break they're 149-153 (.493). As luck would have it, they are 6-8 since the July 16th All-Star game in Louisville unfortunately.

It's been a rough past week for the Hens. After starting last week with the 6-4 win against Rochester—on which Eddie Bonine went 7.1 innings, fanning five— the rest of the week was rather oblivious for Toledo. They dropped four straight to Rochester, only to lose one more to Pawtucket, before Bonine (11-2) stepped on the hill again—on which he dueled against Pawtucket's Michael Bowden for six straight innings— to garnish the much needed 1-0 victory. Blaine Neal recorded his 25th save of the season.

To a crowd of 8,981—their two hundredth sell-out in history— Wednesday turned out to be a night of thrills in Toledo that ended in utter disappointment. Game starter Yorman Bazardo pitched eight great innings in their 2-1 loss to Indianapolis. DH Timo Perez hit safely again to extend his hitting streak to 12 games, and "Fast" Freddy Guzman swiped four bags—matching his own record— to boost his total steals to 39, tying himself with league leader Wayne Lydon of the Syracuse Chiefs.

Late season auditions for a closer have now begun. With Blaine Neal having left for the Olympic team, the Mud Hens are now missing a piece to the puzzle. Audition contestants come in the form of two hard throwing right-handers, Francis Beltran and Fransico Cruceta. Both have almost identical pitch repertoires, but Cruceta has better control over his fastball and has been known to pitch consistently in the high 90s. Beltran, however, has a little more experience in the clutch during crucial games. It's going to be interesting how this battle will turn out in the games ahead.

Brent Clevlen is the essential star in the outfield for Toledo right now. Second only to third baseman Mike Hessman, Clevlen has played in 96 games—37 consecutive to date— and is batting a wonderful .291 with a team leading 104 hits and 70 RBI. With Hessman gone for Beijing, it is Clevlen's power and precision at bat that could lead this Mud Hens team to greatness in the International League.

February brings love, April brings showers and August brings the dog days of summer, where in 2008 we'll see quite a fight in the West. Stay tuned Mud Hen fans.

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