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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Bisons Buffalo Bulls in Battle of Bovines

Posted by on Sat, May 30, 2009 at 11:51 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM---I wondered whether mentioning yesterday that Buffalo was the worst team in the league would jinx the Bulls when they returned home to host the Bisons. Sure enough, the visitors trounced the locals, 9-3, last night. The only drama was provided by a swath of dark, apocalyptic storm clouds that passed north of the DBAP during the middle innings and put on an "ooohh/aaahh!" light show. Pop flies gleamed in the stadium lights against this cinematic, final-scene-of-Ghostbusters backdrop. The postgame fireworks were thus anti-climactic for two reasons: first, we'd already gotten our pyrotechnics; second, the onfield excitement had been drained out by the sixth inning. Plus, as soon as the first rockets were launched into the air, it started to rain hard.

The reason for the loss was obvious and simple: Wade Davis, now Durham's No. 1 prospect with David Price in Tampa (he starts for the Rays tonight), had a poor outing, probably his worst of the year. Davis was named the International League's Pitcher of the Week last week in recognition of two superb starts, but he got knocked around for 10 hits and six runs over 5 2/3 innings, and seemed unable to locate his fastball or his slider. He wasn't fooling the Buffalo hitters, who swung and missed only six times at Davis's 100 pitches (63 strikes).

After the game, Davis said that he didn't think he was awful, and I'd agree with him---at least through his first three innings of work. Although it was obvious from the outset that he didn't have sharp command, Davis battled. In the first inning, he gave up a one-out double to Alex Cora, the veteran major-league shortstop on a rehab assignment with Buffalo. Cora's hit should have been a single, but Ray Sadler misplayed the soft liner and it bounced past him, allowing Cora to move to second base. Davis pitched around it, getting a groundout and a dribbler to strand Cora. In the second, he wild-pitched another seasoned major-leaguer, Mike Lamb, to second after Lamb's leadoff single. A pair of flyouts scored Lamb. The second of those should have been a home run, but the strong wind blew it back into the park.

Davis coasted through the third inning, but he overheated in the fourth. With one out, he got ahead 0-2 on Rene Rivera (batting .227 coming in, 0 HR). Davis tried to throw a slider down and in but left it out over the plate and Rivera hit a thunderous home run over the Blue Monster that landed several seconds into the future. Davis then fell behind 2-0 to the next three hitters, two of whom were hitting under .200 coming in. That led to a walk, a triple and a single. The next batter, Cory Sullivan, hit a first-pitch bloop double; so the Bisons hit for the cycle in the span of five batters.

Another opportunity here to consider my favorite baseball chimera, momentum. Did Rivera's homer ramp the Bisons up into some offensive orbit? Did it somehow rattle Davis and "cause" his inning-long swan dive?

I don't think so. For one thing, if anyone's unrattleable, it's Davis. In postgame interviews, the 23-year-old is all chiseled granite and cold steel, square jaw and hard eyes that stare down at you from his 6-foot-5 frame. When asked about his outing, his first words, barely audible in his clenched-throat way, were: "I forgot about it. It's over." Davis was disinclined to add further commentary, so I asked him about his rocky fourth inning, and specifically the gopher ball he surrendered to Rivera. Davis noted that the slider is his newest pitch---he's been throwing it only since last season---and he's still getting the hang of it. As an analogy, think of a clarinetist learning to play the oboe. It's going to take Davis some time. After allowing that he hadn't really committed himself to the slider since picking it up last year, he then turned about and said, "I think it's going to be a great pitch for me." I'm in agreement there. Two outings ago, the slider had good bite and complemented his fastball beautifully. The problem last night was really with the fastball, which Davis couldn't force down in the zone and seemed even to float a little at times; the slider looked muddy by comparison.

Another argument against momentum: There was no sense of build to Davis's bad inning, no gathering energy. Rivera homered and suddenly, it seemed, there were Bisons all over the bases. It was more like a dam suddenly breaking than like a plane going down a runway. Indeed, Davis retired six straight after that before running into more trouble in the sixth inning. He allowed three straight hard-hit singles, the last of which stood out for the unusual feat of scoring a runner from first base. Matt Joyce fielded the ball heading toward the right-field line and made a rainbow cutoff throw that first baseman Alex Jamieson didn't field cleanly. If he had, he might have had a chance to throw out Sullivan, who was charging home right on the heels of the more leisurely Jason Cooper.

Come to think of it, Davis's outing last night was rather like the accompanying meteorology: His worst inning was the one with the scariest weather, when both the storm front and the Bisons produced their bolts of lightning. Then Davis settled down for a while, just as the weather did, before encountering more problems later, when the skies simultaneously dropped a dull, intermittent drizzle on the crowd.

Davis's counterpart, Fernando Nieve, has seen a fair amount of action in the majors as a reliever. Last night he was an excellent starter, better than his line (6.1 6 3 3 1 7) indicated. He made two mistakes. Joyce launched the first one over the right-field wall for a three-run homer, after a pair of infield singles. The next batter, Ray Sadler, hit the next mistake even farther, but the wind knocked it down and it was caught at the centerfield wall.

One other interesting pitching note from last night: Recently promoted Durham third baseman Matt Hall pitched the ninth inning for the Bulls, a la Nick Swisher in a blowout loss to the Rays last month. I guess Charlie Montoyo didn't want to extend Chad Orvella for two innings (also, Orvella struggled in his one inning of work), so in the eighth he asked Hall, who didn't play in the field last night, if Hall could pitch. Hall, who is 22, told us after the game that he had last pitched in his junior summer of high school. Hall, of course, told Montoyo he could pitch very awesomely, and he tossed a scoreless ninth with his 81-mph "fastball." Montoyo said after the game that he himself had done some emergency relieving during his playing days.

Speaking of things Montoyo said, the theme of his postgame commentary was "day-to-day." Asked about the massive turnover in the roster, he invoked day-to-day. Asked about the injuries to Chris Richard (hamstring), Ray Olmedo (twisted knee) and John Jaso (shoulder), day-to-day. I forgot to ask him about Dewon Day, who hasn't pitched since Monday and was rumored to have some forearm tightness,, but I bet Day is day-to-day, too (please stop me). Asked about the status of his investments in Kazakhstan natural-gas pipelines, Montoyo said they were fluctuating day-to-day. (I might have imagined that last one.)

Montoyo seemed at a loss, oddly, to describe Jaso's injury (Jaso didn't play last night after DHing on Thursday at Rochester), vaguely referring to Jaso's shoulder. So I went and asked Jaso, who hiked up the right sleeve of his T-shirt and showed me a large, variegated bruise on his shoulder bone. He said he'd been hit there by a foul tip and hadn't been able to throw or swing a bat comfortably since. He noted that the bruise was "starting to leak down," and pointed to a greenish-yellow part that was the color of beet greens left in the fridge for two weeks. He wasn't sure how much longer he'd need to recover completely. The Bulls need Jaso's healthy bat, though, especially with Chris Richard still unable to go. Their replacements last night, Craig Albernaz and Alex Jamieson, went 0-7 with four strikeouts, and are batting a collective .160 for the season.

A remarkable note about a recently promoted Bull. Veteran reliever Randy Choate struck out Joe Mauer for the final out of Tampa's 5-3 win over Minnesota last night. It was the first save of the 33-year-old Choate's nine years in the majors.

Here is a sociological mystery for future exploration. Which is more amazing: that they still play "The Macarena" during late-inning pitching changes at the DBAP, or that fans still do the accompanying "dance," which resembles some kind of Hollywood-Indian sign language?

Come out to the DBAP for the second game of the three-game series. To quote from one of the greatest albums ever made, it's gonna be a beautiful night.

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