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Monday, June 1, 2009

Bulls Overtake Bisons: The Elementary

Posted by on Mon, Jun 1, 2009 at 3:38 PM

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DBAP/ DURHAM---It was Education Day at the DBAP today, which meant lots of screaming kids paying very little attention to the Bulls' 6-4 win over Buffalo. And it was the sort of game you needed to pay some attention to in order to appreciate it.

Mitch Talbot was scratched from his scheduled start with some sort of arm issue---shoulder stiffness, according to one report, but no one in the clubhouse confirmed that---so Chris Mason (pictured, above left), who spent last year with the Bulls and was recently called up again from Montgomery, was called on instead.

Mason, a native of Gastonia, NC, was a starter until the Rays moved him to relief last year; he told me after the game that it wasn't uncomfortable for him to throw 80 pitches, even though he was only expecting to throw about 60 or so. His line won't show it, but Mason pitched fairly well, and actually got sharper toward the end of his outing. In the third inning, he gave up a home run to Wily Mo Pena, who lunged awkwardly at a well-placed slider and used his buffalo-like strength to get it over the Blue Monster somehow (he's so strong that it went way over the wall and hit off the glass facade of the DPAC).

After Pena's homer, Mason surrendered a double and an RBI single, but his bouts of shakiness were bracketed by effective stretches. He produced a healthy seven swings-and-misses, fanning three in his last two innings of work. His numbers in Montgomery weren't good, but if he can start putting all of the pieces together, he could end up doing well in middle relief. He said that he's been working on maintaining consistency with his arm slot, which is something nearly all pitchers have to master. Pitching is so mechanically complex that even the slightest change in arm slot and release point can be ruinous. Mason seemed to have the awareness and willingness to try to solve the problem.

John Jaso was back behind the plate today, and in his first at-bat he hit his second home run of the year off of Buffalo starter Jonathon Niese. Niese is rated the Mets' third best prospect, but he was only decent this morning/afternoon---until the seventh inning, when the wheels came off and the Bulls, who are an opportunistic lineup no matter who's in it these days, took advantage to score three runs and get their 13th come-from-behind win this year (that's a lot).

Chris Nowak drew a leadoff walk (more like Chris Yeswak!!) off of Niese after nearly hitting a home run (he launched two long foul balls down the left-field line today). One out later, Ray Olmedo hit his second double of the game, a grounder past third base, to move Nowak to third. Brandon Chaves hit another double to the exact same place. Niese was replaced by the excellently-named Lance Broadway. Matt Hall lined out, and Rashad Eldridge hit a grounder in the second base hole that Mike Lamb knocked down but couldn't field. Chaves was running hard from second and Charlie Montoyo took advantage, waving him around third toward home. Chaves scored on a close play at the plate. But just to make sure the Bulls made their obligatory daily mistake on the basepaths, Eldridge got himself thrown out trying to advance to second.

It turned out not to matter. The Durham bullpen threw five scoreless innings today, the final 1 2/3 by Dale Thayer, back from his callup to Tampa. Thayer hadn't pitched in three days, so Montoyo said after the game that he was prepared to use Thayer for more than one inning.

Watching Thayer more closely now that he's back, it was clear that he was missing with some of his pitches---although he still has his mustache. (I also noticed that his entry music is Bad Company's "Rock and Roll Fantasy," which I suppose could be construed as his soundtrack for dreaming of making it to the majors). He gave up a pair of lineouts to right field, one of which was a fastball that he left up in the zone. Also, Cory Sullivan sent Justin Ruggiano almost to the warning track to catch a long drive to center field. Chaim Bloom told me in yesterday's interview that Thayer's still working on hitting his spots. Although Thayer notched his seventh save today, he wasn't his best. Against AAA hitters, you can get away with a few mistakes; in the majors, you usually can't. It was a reminder that, although the bigs are just one level up from Durham, it's a steep flight of stairs. To draw an Education-Day comparison, it's like the difference between Elementary School and Junior High School: the bodies are bigger, more grownup, and sheer effort won't get results; you have to do your work well. Or to draw a rock-and-roll fantasy comparison, being the bestselling act on Merge Records still leaves you much less popular than the middle-of-the-pack artists on Sony.

Nonetheless, Thayer may have come back to Durham with a little healthy Bad-Company attitude. His last pitch of the game was popped up high in the infield. Instead of watching it, Thayer walked off the mound toward Jaso with the blase confidence of a bowler turning his back on a strike. He didn't even see shortstop Brandon Chaves catch it for the final out.

Wade Davis on the hill for the Bulls tomorrow at 7:05 p.m. I leave you with this awesome quotation from the Insult to Injury Department, heard on a sports radio talk show right after last night's game: "Until you've walked in a man's shoes, you can't throw him under the bus."

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