The first phone call Brent Clevlen made when he got called up to the Detroit Tigers in 2006 was to his parents, Mark and Linda, back in Texas.
"They were excited," said Clevlen, the Mud Hens' outfielder/designated hitter. "It was unexpected, but they were excited."
Clevlen, 25, made his major league debut on July 30, 2006 and doubled in his first at-bat, against Minnesota Twins ace Johan Santana at the Minneapolis Metrodome.
"I was more nervous about playing the outfield in the Metrodome than hitting," Clevlen admitted. "That took a little of the pressure off."
Clevlen didn't do too bad in the outfield that day, either. On the first ball hit to him, he threw out Luis Castillo at home plate in the first inning.
"I knew I could play," Clevlen said. "It was just a matter of getting a chance to stick up there and getting an opportunity to play. You just have to wait for your chance and take advantage of it."
Clevlen hit .282 in 31 games with the Tigers in 2006. He got called up again in 2007 and hit .100 in 13 games. Last year, Clevlen saw action in 11 games with the Tigers and batted .208.
Clevlen, an International League All-Star last season, said there isn't much difference between major league and Triple A pitching. He said the ball fields and lighting are better in the majors than at, say, Toledo's Fifth Third Field, but other than that ... "The (major league) pitchers can throw all their pitches for strikes," Clevlen said. "Obviously everything is better up there. It's definitely tough to get sent back down. You come back down to the minor leagues and it's disappointing, but you just have to continue to work hard to try to get back up there."
Despite an 0-for-4 performance in Toledo's 5-3 loss to Lehigh Valley on Mother's Day, Clevlen was starting to look like the player the Mud Hens had a year ago.
He began May with an eight-game hitting streak, raising his average from .256 to .282, and hit a three-run homer on May 9 in an 11-7 Mud Hens victory. Clevlen is now batting .279 and leads Toledo in games played (30), plate appearances (122), hits (34), doubles (9, tied with Ryan Roberson) and total bases (54).
"Right now he's in the process of getting back to the way he swung the bat last year," Toledo manager Larry Parrish said. "In April, he was out of whack and just not swinging the same as he was last year. In the last week or so we're starting to see the bat path that he had last year, so that's encouraging.
"When he got called up last year, he was swinging the bat really good. He's just got to get back to that. Sometimes when guys don't make the big league club and they clear waivers, it takes them a few weeks to get the mental (aspect) back."
Parrish said Clevlen, who has played 20 games in right field, four in left field and six at DH, is a decent outfielder with an above average arm. What the Hens manager can't figure out - and neither can Clevlen - is why the 6-2, 205-pounder hits right-handers better than lefties. Clevlen bats and throws right-handed.
Clevlen is batting .250 (9-for-36) against left-handers and .291 (25-for-86) against righties.
"I don't have an understanding why that is. It shouldn't be," Parrish said. "There's nothing in his swing that says that should be so. Sometimes when guys go up (to the majors) they're used as situational-type guys. You can get that job and keep that job if you wear out left-handers. Even if you have trouble with right-handers, if you wear-out left-handers, there's a job for you." Last season Clevlen fared better against right-handed pitchers with Toledo, batting .287. He hit .250 against left-handers.
"You see so many more righties than lefties," Clevlen said. "Sometimes here at this park (Fifth Third Field), lefties are tough to see. Other than that, I couldn't tell you. I feel like I see the ball better off lefties, but I don't hit them as well as I think I should. I'm just seeing more righties and getting more at-bats against them." Clevlen has also hit better at DH this season. In 30 games he has batted .348 at DH, .275 when he played right field and .267 when he played left field.
"It's tough because you're used to playing every day," Clevlen said of being a DH. "You have to learn how to stay in the game and keep your body moving and keep a sweat going so it feels like you're in the game. (Between at-bats) I watch the game and go in the cage and take a few swings off the tee to try to stay loose."
Clevlen is slowly getting back to 2008 form, when he batted .279 with 75 runs, 23 doubles, seven triples, 22 home runs and 82 RBI in 126 games with the Hens. His 44-game on-base streak was the longest in the IL last season.
He earned Tigers Minor League Player of the Month honors for May 2008 after hitting .359 with 18 runs, seven doubles, three triples, six home runs and 30 RBIs.
This month, Clevlen is batting .318 (14-for-44), although he still needs to improve his .242 overall average with runners in scoring position. "I'm just being patient and I want to keep driving it and keep trying to put the bat on the ball," Clevlen said of his recent surge. "Good things happen when you do that."
One thing Clevlen is trying to do this season is cut down on strikeouts. He led the IL with 166 last season; he has 29 in 122 at-bats this year. "I've been doing a pretty good job so far," Clevlen said. "There's a few games here and there where I've gotten off my game plan, but I went down to the Dominican (Republic) this winter and worked on my two-strike hitting. It's helped out a lot.
"I'm going to try to continue to put the ball in play. I want quality at-bats, consistent at-bats. I want to put the ball in play and make the defense work and do whatever I can to help the team win."
For the struggling Mud Hens, who have lost seven of their last 10 games, to stay in the hunt for an IL West title, they will need Clevlen to produce. If he puts up the same numbers he did a year ago, chances are he'll get another shot with the Tigers.
"When you go up (to the majors) it's still the same game," Clevlen said. "It's just the big leagues. The crowds are bigger, but it's baseball. You have to settle in and realize this is the game of baseball and go out there and play. Sometimes people get caught up of the 'big leagues' instead of going out there and playing their game."