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Monday, July 13, 2009

Durham Bulls End Slide, Beat Norfolk: The Balancing Act

Posted by on Mon, Jul 13, 2009 at 12:39 AM

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Even though I am psychic, I was half-kidding when I ended my last post with a borderline prediction that the Bulls and their bricolage of relievers would end their four-game losing streak and beat Norfolk on Sunday. Sure enough, Durham rolled, 9-2.

I was half-kidding not only because Julio DePaula + Calvin Medlock {not =} Andy Sonnastine, but also because the Bulls have suffered a big losing streak before and could easily have another one. But I was half-not-kidding for a few reasons: one, the Bulls hadn't played terribly during the skid, as they had during the Horrible Homestand of mid-June; two, the hitting was still potent; three, in hindsight after I suggested the Bulls would win on Sunday, it became clear that a victory would balance so many accounts that it was virtually assured.

Also, dare I say that the Bulls needed this game?

Coming into Sunday, the Bulls trailed Norfolk by a game in the International League South Division. They were also 4-5 against the Tides so far this season. A win would thus even a pair of imbalances vis-a-vis the Tides. Also, after having suffered a mini-skid over the last few games, a victory was sorely needed to tilt the seesaw back the other way before the All-Star break. It just seemed to make sense that the Bulls would win.

A couple of other, perhaps less direct operatives on the game's outcome: One, what's kept the Bulls afloat for much of the year has been its relief staff. I haven't been shy about criticizing the relievers when they've struggled, but the fact is that almost to a man they're overused---the result of strict starters' pitch counts handed down from the Trop and of the inefficiencies of guys like Matt DeSalvo and James Houser, who habitually burn through their allotment of pitches like grasshoppers (as opposed to ants, of course) and force the bullpen into games too early.

For much of the season, the supporting relief cast has done its job really well, and so it was nice to see them collaborate on the win on Sunday. Julio DePaula started for the second time this year, and the results were much improved this time. He went three scoreless innings to extend his streak to seven straight (he has allowed no runs in eight of his last nine appearances, covering 15 1/3 innings). Calvin Medlock, reactivated after Andy Sonnanstine went down with mononucleosis, followed with three more shutout innings. He allowed just one hit and one walk and picked up the win.

Jorge Julio wasn't as effective, allowing two runs. It should be said, in his defense (yes, I am defending Jorge Julio; no, I did not think this would ever happen) that two of the hits he allowed in the Tides' two-run eighth were infield grounders, and that the second run charged to him scored on a bases-loaded walk by Dale Thayer, who recovered from that hiccup and went on to finish out the game---also an appropriate way for the All-Star closer to go into the All-Star break. Yes, the holes in Thayer's armor are a little more visible now that we're a little over halfway through the season, and he has had his (very) occasional troubles; but on balance he has been a superb closer for the Durham Bulls, and a major reason why they're tied for first place. His numbers aren't deceptive.

The Bulls' batsmen started off Sunday's game like they were overanxious to get started on their three-day break, swinging often and zealously at the hard fastballs of Norfolk's hard-throwing, hot-prospect starter Jake Arrieta. Arrieta had a six-pitch, 1-2-3 first inning, and then struck out the side in order in the second. It's certainly not unusual for teams to swing early and often before vacations, but it was as if the Bulls forgot for a while that they were playing their close divisional rival. Elliot Johnson woke his teammates up when he homered to right on a misplaced fastball by Arrieta in the third inning, and then something more serious started to happen to Arrieta in the fourth.

Did that something have to do with hitting Justin Ruggiano? He nailed the Bulls' center fielder with a pitch two outs into the fourth, and you could hear the dreadful thud as the ball hit Ruggiano on the hand or wrist. He went to the hospital for X-rays, and if there is a break, that will be terrible news for him and for the team. For all of his inconsistency, his copious strikeouts, and his occasional appearance of apathy or distraction on the field, Ruggiano is a rugged everyday player. He leads the Bulls in games played and plate appearances, and he is the best defensive outfielder on the team. If he misses extended time, his likely replacement, Rashad Eldridge (currently in Montgomery), will be a major downgrade. Only the return of the injured Fernando Perez, which isn't imminent, could offset the loss of Ruggiano, barring a move outside the organization.

After Arrieta hit Ruggiano, he threw a wild pitch, and then gave up two walks and a home run to three of the next four Bulls. He was aided a little later when Henry Mateo's would-be sacrifice fly turned into a 9-2 double play to end the fifth inning. (Mateo, by the way, was under a horrible curse for a few days: he kept getting robbed of hits on hard-hit balls.) But in the sixth he gave up three singles and a walk with two outs, and then gave way to reliever Bob McCrory, who couldn't find the strike zone at first, and when he did he probably wished he hadn't. The big blow came when Mateo punched a two-run single up the middle---hex broken, apparently---and by the time McCrory stanched the bleeding the Bulls had plated five two-out runs and the game was pretty much over. The only subsequent suspense was whether the Bulls pitching staff would throw its first shutout since May 18, but Jorge Julio put a stop to that.

Nine more hits and seven walks: the Bulls continue to be a dangerous lineup almost regardless of who's in it, which is perhaps the only consolation if Ruggiano is seriously hurt and will miss extended action.

A couple of notes before we head into the break:

* Catcher John Jaso was promoted to Tampa on Sunday. This was a temporary catastrophic-insurance policy taken out by the Rays after starter Dioner Navarro was hit in the face mask by a foul ball on Saturday and had to leave the game. Michel Hernandez replaced him and also started on Sunday. Jaso was only in Tampa in case something happened to Hernandez. Navarro is apparently not seriously hurt, so Jaso will almost certainly be back in Durham when the second half resumes.

* Sunday's game was managed by Dave Myers. Charlie Montoyo was coaching in the Futures Game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Great to see Montoyo getting to do something fun and exciting as a brief break from the grind of managing and the personal challenges he's faced with his son Alex's health.

* Ray Sadler is now an astonishing 1-52 this year against left-handed pitching. That defies comprehension. People who could go 1-52 against AAA southpaws include: every single player in professional baseball all the way down through the rookie leagues, Guatemala and Guam (I'm counting the pitchers, too); Mary Steenburgen; and you. Unless Sadler does something about this ruinous deficiency, and very quickly, he has no chance of ever making it as a big-leaguer. Simple as that. It's a shame, because he's a good player otherwise. Imagine a dentist who can only work on the lower set of your teeth, or a waiter who makes great gin and vodka cocktails but drops every whiskey bottle he picks up.

* Speaking of trouble versus lefties, recall if you will those PSAs on TV with the egg and the voiceover about your brain and drugs. Now imagine that the nice unbroken egg (offscreen) is Jorge Julio versus righties, and the butter sizzling in the pan is left-handed hitters. His ERA vs. right, 1.86; vs. left, 19.29!

If I have time, I may check back in over the three-day All-Star break with some vacation thoughts. And certainly I'll be back when play resumes on Thursday night in Louisville. With Andy Sonnanstine out and Mitch Talbot still somewhere in the purgatory of the disabled list, the starting rotation is a mystery. Who knows who we'll see on the mound? I don't know about you, but I can't wait to find out---about Thursday's pitcher, and about the whole rest of the season. And even though I'm psychic, I don't want to ruin the fun by making any predictions. It will all come clear, one heart-stopping pitch at a time.

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