Mud Hens' catcher James McCann misses the tag of Charlotte's Tyler Saladino at home plate in the top of the second inning of Sunday’s game at Fifth Third Field. BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT
An International League season is a 144-game grind that offers few respites.
On Sunday Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish tried to lighten the mood in his clubhouse. The method? A pitcher’s batting practice.
The star was Mike Belfiore, who slammed four home runs, double the total of any other Toledo pitcher.
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Unfortunately, that turned out to be the highlight of the day as Charlotte hammered the Hens 7-1 at Fifth Third Field.
The Knights pounded out 16 hits and scored five runs in the first three innings, and were never challenged from that point.
Meanwhile Toledo’s offense finished with just three hits, although they also drew eight walks in the first five frames, but scored only once because the Hens hit into four double plays and left eight on base. Those elements combined to bring Toledo’s modest three-game winning streak to an end.
In fact, a case could be made that the star of the game for the Mud Hens was Belfiore, who threw three scoreless innings and struck out five.
Before the game Belfiore said the pressure was on him to produce in the pitcher’s BP.
“I was a hitter in college until I became a closer,” said Belfiore, who was an All-Atlantic Coast Conference second-team pick as a junior at Boston College. “Someone pulled up my stats, so I had some pressure coming in.
“I had to get my rhythm, and once I did that I was just having fun.”
Belfiore, who had 11 home runs and 62 RBIs while playing first base for the Eagles, found that rhythm during the pitcher‘s batting practice.
He got things rolling by slamming a pitch from Joe DePastino, the Tigers’ minor-league catching
coordinator who served as BP pitcher, off the scoreboard in left.
He hit two more homers soon after before finishing his effort with a second shot off the left-field scoreboard.
When Hens manager Larry Parrish was asked if Belfiore might get into a game as a hitter, he replied, “He would be the first pitcher off the bench, but I don’t think [DePastino] will be pitching.”
Once the game started, the Mud Hens offense struggled against Charlotte starter Erik Johnson. Of course, Johnson also struggled with throwing strikes, walking a batter in both the first and second before coming unraveled in the third.
In that inning he walked five Hens, but a double play groundout by Troy Hanzawa after the first walk limited the damage to one run.
Toledo didn’t get a hit until the fourth, and Johnson benefited from the Hens hitting into four double plays in his five innings of work.
“He scuffled, and we couldn’t get a hit,” Parrish said.
“It was kind of looking like a rookie-ball game with all the walks and no hits.”
Mud Hens starter Robbie Ray also scuffled. After giving up a hit in a scoreless first, he was banged around for five hits and three runs in the second and two more hits that produced two runs in the third.
It did not help that, with the bases loaded and none out in the fourth, Toledo catcher James McCann dropped a throw home from Jordan Lennerton that would have kept one run from scoring. Two batters later a fly ball, which would have been the third out of the inning, instead became a sacrifice fly that produced another run for Charlotte.
After a scoreless fourth, Ray threw just two pitches in the fifth before leaving the contest.
Parrish said the starter suffered a “hot spot” on one of his fingers, not a blister, and was removed from the game as a precautionary measure.
After Belfiore’s three innings of work, Melvin Mercedes relieved him and gave up three more hits that produced two runs in the eighth.
NOTES: The Mud Hens are expected to activate IF Brandon Douglas from the disabled list. The team’s roster currently is full with 25 players, so it will need to make a move to open a roster spot for Douglas. ... Toledo SS Eugenio Suarez did not have an official at-bat in Sunday’s game because he walked four times. ... The Hens organization bought the players a post-game spread from Outback Steakhouse as a “thank you” for taking part in a pre-game team photo. ... University of Toledo men’s basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk was among those who threw out a ceremonial first pitch before the game.