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Friday, May 22, 2009

Bulls Fall to IronPigs; Price to Tampa?

Posted by on Fri, May 22, 2009 at 11:55 PM

Other than Chris Richard's three-run home run, his 10th---he now has the second most in the International League---the Bulls hitters couldn't do much tonight, and Mitch Talbot got roughed up in a 5-3 loss at Lehigh Valley. Talbot permitted thirteen baserunners in five innings, and was probably fortunate that only a third of them scored. Ten IronPigs were left stranded, and not even Eumaeus could bring them home (there, I'm a book critic).

With Reid Brignac gone to Tampa, Ray Olmedo played shortstop, and Joe Dillon took over at second base, a position he had previously played in 62 games over 12 seasons in professional ball. Close enough, I guess. It's probable that a Biscuit will rise from Montgomery to Durham soon.

Meanwhile, in Tampa tonight, Dale Thayer got his first major-league save in his inaugural appearance. Thayer pitched three innings in relief of Andy Sonnanstine, and allowed a meaningless ninth-inning run in the Rays' 15-2 rout of their Citrus Series rivals, the Florida Marlins. The official scorer gave Thayer a judgment-call save, which is permitted by league rules if the reliever pitches at least three innings, finishes the game, and is effective in the scorer's eyes. Thayer even got an at-bat, grounding out to the pitcher to end the top of the ninth. He didn't strike anyone out and gave up too many fly balls, but still, three good innings are three good innings.

Brignac came into the game at shortstop when manager Joe Maddon cleared the benches late, and went 1-2 with a single and a run scored.

Although both newly-minted Rays did well tonight, there's every reason to think they'll be back in Durham soon enough once everything gets sorted out in Tampa (and particularly, in Brignac's case, when interleague play ends). Nonetheless, it was nice to see them do well immediately after their call-ups.

When will they be sent down again? The answer to that question got muddied today.

The Tampa Bay Online web site announced that Rays' pitchers Scott Kazmir and Troy Percival have been placed on the 15-day disabled list, the former with a quadriceps strain due to bad pitching mechanics (his ERA to date this year is a disastrous 7.69), the latter due to being 39 years old---he's already retired once with serious forearm problems. Percival has apparently not only gone on the disabled list but also home to ponder his future. Here's betting that he doesn't come back.

Until and unless he does, Joe Maddon indicated he'd be doing the closer-by-committee thing, which works so well that every team that has tried it since the 1980s, when the ninth-inning relief specialist became a fixture in bullpens, has abandoned it after a few months.

The Rays are among the most egalitarian, forward-thinking franchises in the major leagues, but it's hard to imagine even Tampa making the closer-by-committee strategy work. That's too bad because, with Thayer, Jason Isringhausen and the other relief arms in Tampa, the Rays aren't badly suited to the unorthodox approach (which is in fact rather orthodox: that's how it was done for eighty years until the Fingers/Gossage/Sutter/Quisenberry revolution of the late 1970s). Still, look for Isringhausen to get the nod after Maddon inevitably abandons the communal-farming plan. Given Isringhausen's 293 career saves, making him the closer makes traditionalist, old-school sense.

It won't work, though. Isringhausen isn't the pitcher he was in 2004 or even 2007, and he's unlikely to prove reliable even if he's durable. This is a moment for risky thinking, for radical innovation. It's the moment to bring up not just David Price, which seems to be imminent (Price has apparently been scratched from his Bulls start tomorrow night), but to bring up Price and Wade Davis.

Here's why:The Rays have room for two pitchers with Kazmir and Percival out, so they could let Davis start and have Price return to closing games like he did last fall. Davis is on a looser pitch count limit than Price, and he's a little older. He's also got that unflappable, stonefaced demeanor that will preserve his ego should he get hit hard. It's not that Price is some sort of wilting neurasthenic, but he's not as far along in his development as Davis is. Price showed last year he could close games; why not let him grow by having him continue to do it? And if Davis can do what he did in his last start in Durham, he certainly won't be worse than Kazmir has been---or Sonnanstine.

Sure, the Rays envision Price and Davis anchoring the rotation someday---and someday they probably will. But right now there are serious problems to fix, and Price and Davis can help fix them. The Rays are 22-22. We're just over 1/4 through the season, and there's no time to waste in a division with three other dangerous teams, one of which just reeled off nine wins in a row. So why not try it? Why not make the stronger choice, even if it doesn't work out? No one gets memorialized for cautious failure, except maybe General McClellan, and he'd probably rather be forgotten.

We'll be here to report and disagree analyze as soon as more moves are made.

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