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Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bulls Blank Wings: Wade Davis's Command Performance

Posted by on Tue, May 19, 2009 at 2:34 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM---The Bulls beat Rochester 1-0 last night in just 1:56; the difference was Chris Nowak's solo home run leading off the fifth inning. The days of the regular <2-hour game are long gone, so this was a rare short evening at the ballpark. We were done just past 9:00, early enough for fans to catch all of the third period of the Hurricanes' Game One loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. (And speaking of penguins: Man, was it cold at the DBAP!)

We owe the brevity of the affair to the starters, Durham's Wade Davis (pictured, left) and Rochester's Brian Duensing. The two allowed a total of only eight hits and one walk over their combined 13 2/3 innings tonight. By comparison, Mitch Talbot and Anthony Swarzak surrendered 11 hits in just four innings on Saturday. Both pitchers performed really well, reminding me that sometimes the extraordinarily complex art (science, craft, vocation, hippopotamus, whatever) of pitching can actually be made to look quite simple: Keep the ball down, change speeds, throw strikes. Davis (who improved to 4-1) and Duensing did that. Flight time: one hour, 56 minutes. The flight attendants would have been clearing your dinner from your seat tray virtually before you finished it.

After David Price threw five hitless innings on Sunday, I began to wonder during last night's game whether he and Davis had some sort of friendly wager going: Davis was perfect through three innings, locating his fastball well and mixing in breaking balls—especially his rainbow curveball—to keep the Red Wings from getting comfortable. He struck out only three hitters, but he was clearly looking to induce weak contact (he said as much after the game). There were a lot of harmless pop-ups and only four hard-hit balls off of Davis, who showed as much finesse as power—and he had plenty of power. When asked what adjustments he had made since his last start, he mentioned "picking up the target [the catcher's mitt] a little bit earlier."

Davis also made a very fine but important distinction between "control" and "command." At first glance, these might seem like synonyms—a pitcher tossing words around for an interviewer's notepad—but they aren't. You can make decent pitches and throw strikes that don't quite get the job done—that's control without command. Command has to do with not merely the location but the intention and purpose of each pitch, as well as the function of that pitch within the overall approach to each at-bat. "He went right after the hitters," was how Charlie Montoyo put it; Davis wasn't just throwing his fastball for strikes, but throwing it where he wanted it and making the hitters subject to his decision-making. He was, in short, commanding them. He was not only locating his fastball, but also unafraid to show hitters his big-bending curveball (it's a little Josh Beckett-like) early in the count. Davis told me that a couple of times, he started a hitter off with the curveball, just dropping it in (for a strike, of course), in order to give the hitter something extra to think about, which of course would make the low-90s fastball that much harder to catch up to. The curve not only kept the Red Wings off-balance, it also made his outing "a little easier on my arm."

That last comment by Davis also indicates that command includes more than just individual pitches and at-bats; it also involves the pitcher's overall game plan—how he's going to work through a 93-pitch outing (62 strikes) and be as strong on the 93rd pitch as he was on the first. Although Davis lost his no-hitter in the fourth inning, he went right back to work; after the hit, the only baserunner he allowed until the seventh reached on error at third base by Nowak -- who, given that he produced the game's only run, can be forgiven.

Davis picked off the runner who reached on that error, and he nearly picked off the man who had broken up his perfect game in the fourth inning, too. He also had a pickoff in his last outing. Davis has a surprisingly quick move to first, especially for a big guy. It's a hidden weapon in his cache.

It wasn't just Davis who worked efficiently. Winston Abreu, who had given up a go-ahead, 10th-inning home run to Kevin Barker in his last outing, part of the Bulls' wild 13-9 win over Louisville, was brilliant in relief, retiring all seven men he faced to earn a 2 1/3-inning save, his fifth. I overheard one of the coaches in the Bulls' clubhouse marveling that, altogether, Davis and Abreu needed fewer than 120 pitches to take care of business. Add to that the Red Wings' fine night on the mound -- they needed even fewer pitches than the Bulls did (107; 74 strikes) -- and we may not see an evening of such fine pitching at the DBAP for the rest of the year.

During the drive to the ballpark, I found myself wondering idly about what might happen if the softer-throwing Carlos Hernandez or James Houser was inserted into the rotation between Price and Davis, in order to give opposing hitters, over the course of a three- or four-game series, more variation. But Charlie Montoyo reset the context for me. "I got excited," he said after watching Price and Davis dominate on consecutive nights. This was, he suggested, a preview of what we're going to see in Tampa in years to come: these two young guns mowing down the opposition in succession. Montoyo's excitement reminded me that a model for the Rays' future is getting projected down here in Durham, and by that measure it makes inarguable sense for Price and Davis to work as a one-two punch. All the more reason to see them while you can.

That one-two punch got a little extra oomph last night. I was sitting right behind home plate, a few rows back, and glancing regularly at the pitch speeds on the scoreboard radar gun. In the interest of accuracy, the previous night I had asked a guy with a radar gun in my row (some Minnesota Twins operative) whether his readings matched the DBAP's. No, he told me: ours was a little fast. Tonight, someone in the row behind me had a gun, and after Davis's supremely tidy, six-pitch, 1-2-3 fifth inning, I turned to the guy with the gun to ask what readings he was getting. The guy was... David Price. He was both working the gun and charting Davis's pitches: one ace pitching right at another. The more I think of it, the harder it is to keep from getting pumped, as Charlie Montoyo was, about the prospect of Davis and Price taking their lefty-righty combo to the big leagues, where an already strong Tampa rotation awaits them.

Incidentally, Price described the DBAP scoreboard gun as "awful." I'm not sure I'd go that far—if anything, it's just a little fast—but I'll remember to take its readings with a grain of salt (although all of the grains on salt in the DBAP tonight seemed to be coating the chicken tenders in the press box; yes, I ate them anyway; yes, I digress). Speaking of game-related equipment at the park, I would be remiss if I failed to report that the "batter's eye," the big billowing tarp that hangs beyond the centerfield wall and makes it easier for hitters to focus on the pitcher and the ball, was missing last night. "Structural failure" was the official explanation, transmitted to the booth via the authoritative crackle of Matt DeMargel's walkie-talkie. In non-engineering terms, I think "structural failure" means "that-there thang fell down and we couldn't get 'er back up because sumpin' warn't right with one of them poles it hangs on." In any case, the batter's eye was the only piece of Bulls property to suffer "structural failure" last night, when Wade Davis built an outing sturdy as bedrock and stainless as steel.

Today at 1:05 p.m., Carlos Hernandez, who pitched much better than his numbers indicate in his last start, takes the mound for the Bulls. With any luck, he'll have some of the command that Davis and Price brought with them over the last two games. It's going to be a beautiful day, and it's the last game of the homestand before the Bulls hit the road for nine days. Why not duck out of work and head for the DBAP?

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