Henry enjoying breakout season with SeaWolves

Published 12:01 am Monday, July 4, 2011

When he got the news he’d be starting the season in Erie instead of Toledo, Justin Henry was understandably disappointed.

He had proven himself with the Detroit Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate last season, and had been looking forward to continuing his steady progress toward the major leagues.

“I have buddies I played with in college that are getting opportunities in the big leagues, and you wonder,” Henry said.

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Rather than bemoaning the shots other players were getting, Henry became determined to earn his own. He regrouped, took advantage of some extra playing time and is now reaping the rewards.

The former Vicksburg High and Ole Miss star is enjoying his best professional season since the Tigers drafted him in the ninth round in 2007. Entering Sunday night’s game with Akron, Henry was seventh in the Double-A Eastern League with a .314 batting average and was selected to represent the SeaWolves in the league’s all-star game on July 13.

“Worry about that too much and you lose focus on being successful on the field,” Henry said of the pressure to advance up the ranks. “I came into it with a good approach. I didn’t put as much pressure on myself and took it one day at a time. You’ve just got to keep a level head.”

A big reason behind Henry’s all-star first half was the way he avoided his traditional early-season slump. A notoriously slow starter, Henry has rarely had a strong April since turning pro and often spent most of May and June digging out of the hole. Last season, he hit .133 in April with Erie and over .300 the next two months.

This season he hit a respectable .270 in April, then followed that up with his normal hot streak as the weather warmed. He was the Eastern League player of the week for May 9-15, led the league in hitting for a spell and had 20 hits in 20 games in June. Over the last two months, he’s hitting .335.

“It definitely has seemed to haunt me,” a laughing Henry said of his past Aprils. “For whatever reason I got off to a better start. The start of the season I was playing off and on and it prevented that a little bit.”

Besides his hot hitting, Henry has found another way to stay in the lineup — and perhaps carve out a path to the majors. Although he’s primarily used as a second baseman, Henry has moved into a utility role this season. He’s started at least one game at every position except pitcher and catcher.

“My whole career has been that way. In college I played something different every year,” said Henry, who was used as an outfielder, second baseman and first baseman at Ole Miss. “When there’s guys ahead of you, one way to make it up there is being able to play a couple different positions. My versatility is one of my greatest tools.”

No matter how well anyone plays, however, luck plays a big part in whether they earn a promotion. An injury or a prolonged slump to someone farther up the depth chart can open the door for someone else.

Last season, Henry’s promotion to Toledo came about because of a rash of injuries to the Tigers’ Triple-A and major league teams. He ended up spending the second half of the season with the Triple-A club and hit .269, with 42 hits in 44 games.

While the Tigers’ major league second basemen have hit a combined .216 this season, there’s still a logjam of healthy players ahead of Henry in Toledo and Detroit. That has led to some frustration, but also a sense that an opportunity could open up — even if it’s not in the Tigers’ organization.

If he continues to play well, Henry might attract the attention of other teams and become a throw-in prospect in a trade. The Tigers are in a tight race with Cleveland in the American League Central and are likely to make a move before the trade deadline at the end of July.

“It just hasn’t worked out where I got that opportunity. This year I’m playing better but the numbers haven’t worked out,” Henry said. “You’ve got to look at it as you’re not only moving up on your team but all the other teams. Everybody has scouts at these games.”

For the immediate future, Henry said his goal was simply to keep playing well and let the rest take of itself.

If he spends the entire season with Erie he has a shot to finish with a batting average over .300 for the first time since he hit .340 with Oneonta of the Class A New York-Penn League in 2007.

He also has a chance to win his first batting title as a pro, which would be a nice complement to the all-star selection on his resumé.

“That would definitely be great. To say you don’t worry about numbers is a lie because that’s how you make it up there,” he said. “What separates guys in the big leagues is to sustain playing well for a long time. Something like winning a batting title shows I can do that.”