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They call him "Pops."

That's what happens when you're the ripe "old" age of 26, and playing in an independent baseball league that typically has been an avenue for those just out of college.

"I'm the grandfather," Ty Hensley said, with a laugh.

Hensley on Saturday night will make his final start of the season in the United Shore Professional Baseball League, on championship weekend no less. He will start for the No. 2-seed Utica Unicorns, who play at 7:05 at Jimmy John's Field in Utica against the winner of Friday night's game between the Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers and the Eastside Diamond Hoppers.

You look at the right-hander's season statistics, and they don't exactly jump off the page: 5.74 ERA, 43 walks in 69 innings, and a 1.43 WHIP.

But there are two numbers that mean more than anything else: 69 innings, zero injuries.

That's huge for the former first-round draft pick of the New York Yankees (30th overall, 2012), who pitched just 42.2 innings, total, in all his affiliated minor-league seasons.

"He's still learning how to pitch," said Justin Orendurff, director of baseball operations for the four-team, four-year-old USPBL. "The most valuabe thing that came about in the 2019 season is he stayed healthy, and he started to extend deep into ballgames.

"He's proven to himself, you know what, there's still some light at the end of the tunnel.

"I'm excited for him."

The bond between Hensley, a right-hander from Oklahoma, and Orenduff, 36, a former right-hander out of Maryland, is quite strong. That's because Orenduff can understand Hensley. Both are former first-round picks — Orenduff went 33rd overall to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004 — whose careers were derailed by injuries.

In Hensley's case, he counts eight surgeries since he was drafted just seven years ago.

He had four hip surgeries, a hernia repair and three elbow surgeries, two of which were Tommy John surgeries.

You can see why the most innings he accumulated came in 2014, when he pitched all of 30.2 in time spit between the Yankees' rookie-ball and high-Single A teams.

Yet, he still keeps grinding, and keeps the dream alive.

"I played basketball, baseball and football growing up, and I didn't miss a single game," Hensley said. "Baseball being taken away from me, it wears on you, it gets you down, it gets you upset. That's where your faith helps get you through. Luckily for me, I've got a lot of good good people around me.

"I still had my stuff. My repertoire and everything that I always had, it didn't go anywhere, it was just in hibernation.

"I knew I still had the talent and ability, and the health part was coming around. It's just one of those things where I'd be wasting some God-given ability if I decided to let the injuries beat me."

When the USPBL was founded in May 2016, it instantly became a haven for kids fresh out of college, including several who might've been overlooked in the MLB Draft.

And it's been a success. To date, the USPBL has seen 36 of its players signed to contracts with major-league organizations, including nine this season.

This season also saw the first USPBL alum make the major leagues, with right-hander Randy Dobnak now pitching for the in-playoff-contention Minnesota Twins.

Could this open up the USPBL to more types of players.

"I'd always thought so, regardless of age, to be honest with you," said Orenduff, whose Delivery Value System has played a big role with USPBL pitchers, particularly on instituting mechanics to stay healthy — and Hensley sure is a believer. "The type of player you could see in the USPBL in three, four or five years could even be a guy who has had big-league time and is trying to get back on track. Maybe he spends two weeks here or maybe he spends two months. I think we could help those guys."

Hensley, who signed with the Yankees for $1.2 million in 2012 instead of going to Ole Miss, isn't exactly sure what the future holds from him, though after taking a couple weeks off after Saturday's start, he plans to spend much of the winter in Michigan, working out and continuing to take advantage of the DVS and the DVS Scoring System.

His stuff isn't exactly what it was. He was mid to high-90s when drafted out of high school, but now sits around 89 to 92. He also has an improving slider.

It's all been good enough for Hensley to strike out 72 in his 69 innings, and limit opponents to a .217 batting average.

He's also up for the league's Sportsmanship Award, which was to be awarded on the first night of championship weekend, on Friday.

It's all made for a heck of a year, and a heck of a story.

"Oh yeah, I would definitely say this is the most fun year of baseball in my life," said Hensley, who was selected by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2016 Rule 5 draft and released after missing the 2017 season with another injury.

"I just have a new appreciation for being able to do what I do.

USPBL championship weekend

When: Friday through Sunday

Where: Jimmy John's Field, Utica

Games: Saturday — 7:05 p.m., Utica Unicorns vs. Birmingham Bloomfield Beavers or Eastside Diamond Hoppers; Sunday — Championship game, 1:05 p.m., Westside Woolly Mammoths vs. TBA

Tickets: Ranging from $6 to $35, available at uspbl.com or at the box office

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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