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Monday, June 29, 2009

Durham Bulls Edge Columbus Clippers in 13: Just another day

Posted by on Mon, Jun 29, 2009 at 2:42 AM

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Catching is hard enough on the human body as it is. You have to put on all that heavy, oppressive gear, squat on those aching knees, take foul tips off the fingers and shoulders, crab around for balls off the plate and in the dirt, leap up and down constantly to make high-pressure throws, and run down the line on every infield grounder to back up first base---not to mention, you know, have guys throw baseballs at you as hard as they can. It's also your job to suggest what sort of baseball they should throw: Fastball? Splitter? Curve? Rose-breasted grosbeak? And by the way, you also have to get your act together and hit a few times each game, too.

So I've been having sympathetic pains on John Jaso's behalf. The Durham Bulls' catcher has not only done all of the regular duties behind the plate, he has also now caught every single pitch of three extra-inning games in the Bulls' last six contests. And these weren't nice little nine-inning ties tidily resolved in the 10th: two have gone 13 innings, and one went 15. These were long, complicated epics, replete with minor characters killed off early, unexpected reversals unexpectedly reversed, great heroism and great failure, scenes of tremendous, lightning-bolt excitement, and even cavernous stretches of yawning boredom.

And the Bulls have won two of these wars of attrition, both on enemy territory, the latest a seesawing 8-7 victory at Columbus. With the win, the Bulls also happen to have first place all to themselves.

Just another day for the Bulls, no?

At least three times in last night's win, Bulls broadcaster Neil Solondz---who has also earned plenty of sympathy for calling these long games, alone, with great aplomb---had occasion to remind listeners that Justin Ruggiano has "a flair for the dramatic." Perhaps Solondz reiterated the phrase in order to encourage Ruggiano to show that flair.

Guess what? It worked! In the last of the 12th inning, Ruggiano made a game-saving, over-the-shoulder catch of Andy Marte's long, deep drive to the gap; and then, in the top of the 13th, he smacked a single up the middle to score Henry Mateo with the winning run. There were two outs when he did it, and the count was 0-2. Needless to say: The Roodge!

But don't you think the Bulls have to start getting tired at some point? Their Ohio sojourn has turned into some sort of insomniac mind-trip, baseball as Paul Auster might write it. But what's perhaps weirdest about it, as far as last night was concerned, was that Durham starter Matt DeSalvo---a former Columbus Clipper---went to Marietta College in Ohio and makes his off-season home, according to Solondz, in... Columbus.

So was he a little nervous to be pitching in front of his folks? DeSalvo started the game with a pair of walks. After a groundout and a sacrifice fly, DeSalvo threw a wild pitch and walked his third Clipper of the inning. He escaped with "only" two runs scoring, but DeSalvo never really solved his control problems. He gave out six free passes in 4 2/3 innings, and although his craftiness got him through the second and third, once he passed 90 pitches his command instantaneously deserted him. Suddenly the problem wasn't walks but hits: four of the five he allowed came in the fifth. One of them, it must be said, was a wind-blown pop fly by Wyatt Torregas that landed just inside the foul pole about 320 feet from home plate for a costume-jewelry home run---but still, DeSalvo made his own bad luck with all those walks. He left having allowed five runs.

By the way: I still want to read DeSalvo's novel. (Novels?)

Anyhow, it was a shame DeSalvo fell apart, because his team scored five runs for him in the early going---off of a lefty, no less---and he could have had his first victory had he held fast.

Rhyne Hughes is really ripping up the International League, and after sitting out two games to make room for Chris Richard, who finally returned from the disabled list, Hughes was reinserted into the lineup last night as designated hitter. Naturally, he hit a long opposite-field home run in the second inning. (Solondz mentioned that Hughes had been on fire during batting practice; obviously it carried over.) Hughes has now had multi-hit games in nine of the 17 he's played in as a Bull, and in eight of the last 11. Thirteen of his 24 hits have been for extra bases. His OPS is 1.044.

Hughes is a strange case. It took him three years to play his way out of A-ball, and he put up good-but-not-great numbers in his first season in Double-A Montgomery in 2008. But he hit 15 homers in 58 games there to start 2009, and with the Bulls he's been an absolute terror. At this rate, Chris Richard may have to start watching his back. Hughes still has to work on his plate discipline---and he choked in a crucial extra-inning at-bat last night (he's now done so three times since his callup)---but right now he looks like the real deal. He is, however, 25 years old, and he needs to keep doing what he's doing in order to establish himself rapidly as a legitimate prospect.

Hughes batted seventh last night, between John Jaso and Jon Weber. With his big bat down in the latter third of the lineup, the Bulls look like a much more dangerous club. They've scored 20 runs in their last two games, and they seem to be on the verge of a major hitting surge. I don't know why I say that; it just feels that way.

If the pitching keeps pace, that surge will result in very good things. The bugbear continues to be walks, and no surprise there: the Bulls lead the league---no other team is even close. The Durham staff walked 10 (!) Clippers on Sunday night and still managed to come away with a win, partially by limiting Columbus to a 5-17 performance with RISP (the Bulls were worse: 3-13). Jorge Julio walked a guy who scored. Joe Bateman walked two more hitters (one intentionally, it must be said) and had to perform a pair of major Houdini acts to escape certain drowning---and he also needed Ruggiano's game-saving catch.

I've said before that one reason you need your starter to go deeper into the game than 4 2/3 innings is that the more relievers you have to use, the likelier it is that one (or more) will fail: most of them are relievers, remember, because they aren't good enough to be starters. And anyway, the odds just kind of guarantee it. But those same odds also assure some success; it's a coin flip, really, most of the time, unless you're calling in this guy. So it's no surprise that exactly half of the Bulls who pitched in last night's game did well. Jason Childers turned in his fourth straight scoreless appearance and has shaved more than 3/4 of a run off of his ERA. The Bulls' leader in appearances isn't getting any more rest than was earlier in the year, when he went through a rough patch; whatever it is he's doing now, it's working. Also, he's a wizard at Sharpie art (scroll down some there) and I intend to see if he's created any new pieces when the Bulls return home.

Dale Thayer was charged with a blown save in last night's game, which is a shame, because he pitched quite well. (Remember, kids: you can't always trust the box score.) Thayer allowed a game-tying run in the last of the ninth on a pair of stupid dink singles, and then pitched a scoreless 10th inning. He deserved better than he got. He also shaved off the mustache that had earned him big style points in the Rays' blogosphere. If that excision was done as a response to his last outing, when he also blew a save, it's time to grow the 'stache back again. It's a groovy 'stache.

Julio DePaula got his first save of the year, pitching around an infield single in the bottom of the thirteenth, his slider and changeup dancing around the Clippers' bats; he struck out two. DePaula hasn't allowed an earned run in his last four starts, and along with Childers has been the most dependable reliever on the staff recently.

Speaking of not trusting the box score, know that Chris Richard's 0-5 is deceptive: he hit a pair of deep flyouts and also lined out to second. Richard has only one hit since his return to action and his average has dropped to .230, but he may be on the verge of breaking out again. Keep an eye on him.

It seemed generally that the Bulls hit into a lot of loud outs last night, which may or may nor have been the karmic equalizer for all the walks the pitchers allowed. Yes, that is kind of moony; more likely it's only our old friend, Luck, playing his or her usual tricks. Luck was all over this game, from Thayer's unfortunate ninth inning to Bateman's sleight-of-sidearm in his two innings of work to Torregas's silly home run. It wasn't until the Bulls failed to score in the top of the 12th, when they had runners on the corners with one out (Hughes struck out and Weber flied to left), that both teams' ups and downs, missed opportunities, windfalls and misfortunes all seemed to even out. After that it was the Roodge Rules.

One other note: Columbus stole six bases off of John Jaso and his assorted battery-mates last night. Some of those were "stolen off the pitcher," as they say, but Jaso has only caught three of the last 32 attempted base-stealers. He seems to have trouble getting the ball out of his mitt sometimes. I pick at this only because it's one of the few things keeping Jaso from really emerging at the AAA level. His hitting will come around as he continues to adjust---he has excellent plate discipline, best on the team---and he has a steady, affable presence as a backstop; but both his plate coverage and his stolen-base defense are still works-in-progress.

Nonetheless, I feel his pain this morning. Here's hoping he gets lots of sleep, and Monday off.

After last night's four hour, 35-minute saga finally ended, Neil Solondz and Beth Ellison bid each other goodnight. Ellison complimented Solondz on surviving another long evening at the mike. "Just another day," he replied. And I hope that he, too, like Jaso, is sleeping it off.

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