Since the Toledo Mud Hens opened Fifth Third Field in 2002, the franchise has treated the Glass City to winning ways, claiming back to back Governor's Cups in 2005 and 2006 and winning four division titles as well. Many thought the 2009 Hens would add to that legacy.
By all accounts, the Hens were a very experienced team heading into this past April. The majority of the team's starting line up had played some time at the Triple-A level. In fact, players like Mike Hessman, Clete Thomas, and Chris Lambert had experience at the big league level as well.
The Hens stormed out to an 8-2 start, looking like the early favorite in the International League West. But after the hot start, Toledo posted a 12-28 record over their next 40 games, and found themselves at the bottom of their division by the beginning of June with a record of 20-30. A season that started with much promise suddenly seemed to come to a screeching halt.
A floundering offense, shaky pitching, and constant roster shake ups made it difficult for the Hens to establish any form of consistency in the early portion of the season. An example of the Hens struggles was Mike Hessman. Hessman hit just .173 in April and .195 in May. But the 31-year old slugger hit eight home runs and drove in 30 RBI in April and May.
Another example of inconsistency was with Hens reliever Freddy Dolsi. Dolsi was thought to be a late inning stalwart who could either close out games or be a set up man. Dolsi was lights out during the month of April, posting a 0.00 ERA over nine appearances. But May was quite a different story. Dolsi's ERA was 13.50 for the month over nine appearances.
To compound the problem, the Hens had 29 roster moves over the first two months of the season. While the minor leagues' purpose is to supplement the major league roster, the revolving door between Toledo and Detroit did not make life any easier on the team as they tried to get their season back on track.
If there was one bright spot in the Hens dismal start, it was the play of outfielder Don Kelly. It was thought that Kelly would be the Mud Hens utility player to start the season, but after Ryan Raburn and Clete Thomas were called up to the Tigers, Kelly became a fixture in centerfield for Toledo. The Pennsylvania native hit .333 in April and a scintillating .365 in May. Even more impressive was Kelly's .428 on base percentage over the first two months of the season too.
The Hens posted their first winning month of the season with a record of 14-13 in June. Toledo's month was bolstered by the emergence of second baseman Scott Sizemore. With rough starts by infielders Will Rhymes and Danny Worth, Sizemore's consistent bat and defense cemented him at second. The Virginia native hit .311 for the month after being called up on the 6/15.
At the All-Star break, the Hens were sitting in third place in the IL West, after posting a first half record of 41-48. After a successful first half, shortstop Brent Dlugach was named to the Hens lone representative to the Triple-A All-Star game. Also, Sizemore was the Tigers representative in the MLB Futures Game in St. Louis.
Offensively the Hens were led by Don Kelly, who continued to post solid numbers throughout June and July. Kelly hit .340 in before the mid season break with 3 HR and 24 RBI. His offensive numbers earned Kelly a promotion to Detroit in June.
On the mound the Hens were paced by Luke French. The young southpaw ended up being the team's most consistent starter before the All-Star break. French was second on the team in wins (4) and had a team best 2.98 ERA, despite being called up to Detroit twice during the first half of the season.
The start of the second half was more of the same from the Hens. The team finished the rest of the month July with a record of 16-14, which was the Hens second consecutive winning month. But the month of July established something that Toledo had been desperately seeking all season. With a consistent everyday lineup in place and a pitching staff that was starting to even out, the Hens started to put some things together.
It started off innocently enough with consecutive wins to close out a short road trip with the Louisville Bats on July 30th. But the Hens put together an eight game win streak and went 7-1 on an eight game home stand to start the month of August. All of a sudden, the Hens, who had been at the bottom of the standings, started to creep back into the playoff picture.
The Hens' surge back into the playoff race was led by an unlikely player. Outfielder Jeff Frazier had posted mostly unimpressive numbers when he was called up to Toledo from Erie on May 8th. But at the end of the month of July, Frazier caught fire at the plate. The New Jersey native hit .375 in July, but he hit .527 over the final week of the month with 5 homers and 12 runs driven in. That hot streak continued into August as well, and Frazier raised his batting average 54 points from .245 to .299 over two weeks.
The team was also helped out by two rehabbing Tigers, Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman. Both pitchers were with the Hens for the month of August. Robertson became a solid starter for the Mud Hens down the stretch. Bonderman, while inconsistent at times, became a nice option out of the bullpen for the surging Hens.
Toledo continued their winning ways posting another eight game win streak a week later, trimming the Gwinnett Braves wild card lead to just 4 games by August 23. The Hens continued to get solid pitching especially from starters Ruddy Lugo and Nate Bump. Lugo had battled arm fatigue throughout the first half of the season, but the right hander rebounded nicely posting a 7-1 record in the second half of the season with a 2.30 ERA. Lugo ended up leading the team in wins for the season with 13.
Nate Bump came out of nowhere after being signed from Independent ball on July 4th. Bump was 5-0 in his first six starts with the Hens, and he finished the season with a 7-1 record and a 2.38 ERA. Unfortunately for Bump, his 2009 season ended prematurely after he was sidelined with a blister on his index finger on his right hand.
Unfortunately for the Hens, they folded down the stretch of the season losing five out of their next six games. The Hens were seven games back of Gwinnett at that point, and the team never recovered with only a handful of games left to play.
Despite being out of the playoff race, the end of August and the beginning of September provided some excitement for the Hens. Dontrelle Willis made two rehab starts for Toledo. The southpaw delivered mixed results as he continued to work his way back from an anxiety disorder. Also on September 1, six players were called up from Toledo to Detroit when the major league rosters expanded to 40 players. Brent Dlugach, Wilkin Ramirez, Dusty Ryan, Casey Fien, and Eddie Bonine were all promoted to the Tigers. Also Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson both finished their rehab assignments and rejoined the big league club. And Don Kelly joined the Tigers at the end of the season.
The Hens had five players called up from different levels of the Tiger farm system to fill the vacancies left by the departing players. Catcher Keith Hernandez, infielders Audy Ciriaco and Mike Gosse, and pitchers Ryan Ketchner and Lester Oliveros all found themselves donning the Hens uniform for the final week of the Triple-A season.
The Hens finished the season with a record of 73-70. The winning record meant that the Mud Hens had put five consecutive winning seasons together for the first time since 1896-1901. Also Brent Dlugach and Don Kelly were named to the International League's postseason all star squad. Kelly finished second place for the IL batting title too.
The roller coaster of a season that started on such a sour note ended with a bitter sweet moral victory. The story of the 2009 Toledo Mud Hens was an example of never giving up on a season, no matter the situation. There were valleys like the team's dismal 0-8 road trip in May. There were peaks like Toledo's 18-1 win over Syracuse in July and Jeff Frazier hitting two grand slams in one week.
But perhaps it was Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish who summed the season up best.
"Consistency is key in any sport, but in baseball especially. I thought we did some good things this year, but in the end it's about doing those things everyday. I was really impressed by some of our guys, but some of the guys never could do those things every night," Parrish said. "I was proud of our guys though for not quitting. They had a lot of fight in them. It's easy to close up shop when you struggled the way we did. But our guys fought through and got back on the right track."
Here's hoping the 2010 Mud Hens show the same kind of spirit that these 2009 Mud Hens did.