Making his mark: Justin Henry moving up in Tigers’ system

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 27, 2009

When Justin Henry walked into Turner Field for his first game in a major league uniform, he wasn’t awed by his surroundings.

The towering levels of blue seats, huge scoreboards and booming sound systems didn’t faze him. It was the little things that made him feel like he was in the big leagues.

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“It was pretty neat. But in college we played in some big stadiums. That part didn’t affect me,” Henry said. “Just walking out and seeing the Braves and some of the guys you grew up watching. And things like having people take care of you in the clubhouse. That’s what hits you. More the experience was what had me more in awe than anything.”

Henry’s taste of major league life only lasted a few days. The former Vicksburg High and Ole Miss star was one of several Detroit Tigers minor leaguers who joined the major league club in Atlanta for that exhibition game against the Braves in early April. After going 0-for-2 with a run scored, it was back to the minors for the start of the regular season and to resume the long climb through the farm system.

Henry is in his first season with the Lakeland Flying Tigers of the Class A Florida State League. He’s still a few steps — and, likely at least a couple of years — from getting to Detroit on a full-time basis, but is progressing nicely. After earning team MVP honors with the West Michigan Whitecaps of the Class A Midwest League last season, Henry earned a promotion to Lakeland this year.

“I’m taking it as a year-by-year thing,” Henry said. “It would help if I got off to a better start, but I’m heating up.”

Henry got off to a slow start this season, something that isn’’t unusual for him. He hit just .238 in April and May last season, then hit .305 in June and finished the year with a .295 average. In 2007, with the Oneonta Tigers of the New York-Penn League, he hit .354 in July and ended the season at .340. This spring, he was 9-for-56 — a putrid .161 average — in April. Since then, he’s hitting .301 and has scored 25 runs in his last 37 games.

Henry hit safely in 11 of 13 games entering the weekend, lifting his average 19 points. Henry, the Flying Tigers’ leadoff hitter, is now batting .250, with 32 runs scored and 13 stolen bases in 56 games.

“Last year it was a little tougher in Michigan because it was cold. I can’t come up with any excuses in Florida,” Henry laughed. “I’ve hit the ball better this year (early on). I hit it decent and just wasn’t getting it to fall.”

Although he’s learned to weather the early-season cold snaps, Henry admitted it does cause some concern. In Class A, one of the checkpoints of the minor league system where prospects start to distinguish themselves, competition for playing time is fierce. A prolonged slump can take away a starting job and make it even more difficult to make an impression.

Henry said learning to shake off the bad times without making it worse can be tough.

“It’s a game and you’re going to have struggles. At the same time, there’s a lot of guys out there playing and you don’t want to struggle for long,” Henry said. “One thing that helps is getting a chance to play every single day. You have a rough night and you can get up and go back to the field again right away. It helps, too, that some of our coaches were with me last year. So they know what I can do.”