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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bulls Braise Buffalo: Turning Japanese?

Posted by on Sun, May 31, 2009 at 11:04 AM

DBAP/ DURHAM---It's getting almost boring, reporting on Carlos Hernandez when he starts for the Bulls. He baffled the Bisons last night for eight innings---the longest start of the year by a Bulls pitcher---and his mates poured on the runs in the middle third of the game. Durham won, 10-2. The big blows were three-run homers by Jon Weber and Ray Sadler, which came three at-bats apart in a six-run sixth.

Before I get to the game itself, yet another Bull on the move:

Outfielder Matt Joyce, who has been the Bulls' best overall hitter so far this season, was promoted to Tampa before the game (here's an engaging piece about Joyce's potential). Dale Thayer is on his way back down after a week with the big-league club. Although Thayer wasn't anything like lights-out, he showed enough promise to force the Rays to think about him as a viable major-league player, either in Tampa or elsewhere. And he grew an endearing 'stache in order to insure that he wouldn't be forgotten.

Dewon Day was placed on the 7-day disabled list, retroactive to 5/28. The rumored forearm tightness must have been real. Chris Mason, who pitched with the Bulls last year, was recalled, although his stay could turn out to be brief with Thayer's return. But who knows, really? The Durham roster has turned into a rush-hour IRT.

Other player notes: Ray Olmedo returned to action and played third base; John Jaso was the designated hitter again. "We need his bat," Charlie Montoyo said after the game (Jaso was 0-2 with a walk and an HBP)---although last night, backup Craig Albernaz went 2-4 with a double. The right-handed Albernaz specializes in shooting the ball down the right-field line, a skill that he deliberately hones. Albernaz is about 5-foot-8, and he told me after the game that he's had to learn how to adapt his hitting approach to his size. He's probably too small to make it to the major leagues, but Albernaz is a a canny, smart player who stands to have a long career as a coach or manager.

Albernaz also, it seems to me, calls an excellent game for his pitchers, and the ability to do that is critical when a guy like Hernandez is on the mound. Hernandez's fastball topped out at about 87mph last night, but the Bisons had few good swings after the fourth inning, when they scored both of their runs. Hernandez and Albernaz called and threw a shrewd, professional game, mixing pitches, speeds and locations (especially horizontal location), and they seemed to have a knack for throwing the exact pitch that the hitter wasn't expecting. Buffalo hit a lot of weak grounders, and Hernandez fanned five for good measure, with no walks. He made the free-swinging goliath Wily Mo Pena look foolish twice.

Hernandez was also a model of efficiency. He needed 93 pitches (70 of which were strikes!) to go eight innings, and Albernaz pointed out that Hernandez was at his most economical when it counted. After the Bulls' long fifth inning, when they batted around and scored three times, Hernandez came out and threw a nine-pitch sixth. After the Bulls' even longer bottom of the sixth, when Weber and Sadler homered---both on 0-2 counts, a sure sign that a pitcher has lost his command---Hernandez tossed a 10-pitch seventh. All in all, Hernandez used only 24 pitches in one three-inning stretch. The only disappointment was not getting to speak with him after the game. He was on the training table.

During the game, however, I got to talk to Matt Winters, a scout for the Japan-league Nippon Ham Fighters. (I'm just kidding about this; the Fighters are owned by Nippon Ham, a food processing company.) Winters is a former ballplayer and coach who roves around the International League ballparks of the southeast, scouting players who fit the needs of Japanese teams. Often, these are big, well-traveled slugger types (of which the Bisons have several), for the reason that Japanese players tend to be built smaller than American players. Every Japanese team wants to have a big bat in the middle of the lineup, and he also has to be able to hit breaking balls well: a higher percentage of them are thrown in Japan. The likeliest candidates are American (and sometimes Latino) players in their late 20s - early 30s: no longer prospects in the US, but still dangerous enough to do damage somewhere, and often in need of a better income to support their families.

That describes Winters himself. In 1989, when he was a 29-year-old minor-league free agent, he signed with Nippon and was a successful and popular player there for five years until he retired. He was in the Florida Marlins organization after that (Huizengaed in the Great Purge of 1998), and then with the Pirates before the Fighters brought him back as a scout. I enjoyed hearing his thoughts about some of the players toiling in the International League, all of them in that large category of journeymen that particularly appeals to Japanese teams.

What was perhaps most interesting, though, was simply to discover an entirely unexpected subset of onlookers at the DBAP (another Japan-league scout was in the same row as Winters). As the saying goes, Always play hard; you never know who's watching.

On that note, I spoke with Jon Weber briefly. Weber plays almost year-round; when the minor-league season ends, he goes down to Mexico or Venezuela and earns extra pay to support his family. "I gotta do what I gotta do to make money," he said, after offering a disarmingly frank self-assessment in response to my question about his approach at the plate, which strikes me as unusually adaptable and situational. "Sometimes you give away at-bats," he admitted, noting his occasional tendency to lose focus at the plate (I'd wager it's partially because he gets distracted by his propensity for complaining to umpires about the strike zone). You can tell when that happens: Weber will fall behind in the count and lose control of the at-bat, which he then seems to give up on; he will often then strike out, weakly, and saunter back to the dugout, shaking his head in sullen disgust.

Last night, though, Weber was focused in three at-bats over three consecutive innings. The lefty doubled high off the Blue Monster in the fourth and scored the Bulls' first run; he took advantage of sudden irreversible wildness by Buffalo's Brandon Knight in the fifth and walked; and then he capped it off by belting a three-run homer to right-center in the sixth. And although he isn't a Gold-Glove outfielder, he plays hard and intelligently out there. The 30-year-old Weber, who began his career as an undrafted free agent ten years ago, may not have the home-run power to make it to Japan (where he could increase his pay ten-fold or more)---if he even wants to go there---but he has the kind of tenacity and professionalism that summon immediate respect. To some degree, he's the kind of player that baseball is really built on. His candor in his postgame interview was also a reminder that baseball players are human beings, just like the rest of us (well, this one might not be). And he's also the funniest guy in the clubhouse.

(Tangentially of great interest.)

Notes on ex-Bulls in Tampa: David Price was superb for the Rays in picking up his first major-league victory yesterday. And apparently Randy Choate, who just discovered saves at age 33, liked getting one so much that he decided to do it again. Not to be outdone in the I-Forgot-What-A-Cool-Stat-This-Is! competition (33-Year-Old Division), Joe Dillon hit his first homer of the year, and the third of his career.

Five o'clock tilt this gleaming late afternoon at the DBAP. Houser on the hill for Durham. See you there.

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