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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Durham Bulls edge Louisville Bats in 16 innings: favorite mistake

Posted by on Sun, Jul 19, 2009 at 5:16 AM

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="The Eedge delivered for Durham"]The Eedge delivered for Durham[/caption]"This type of game is all about the late mistakes," Bulls' broadcaster Neil Solondz noted in the 14th inning of last night's 3-2 Bulls win at Louisville. Solondz made that comment moments after Ray Sadler was picked off of first base: an S.B.G. of potentially dreadful consequence from which Sadler was held harmless when Elliot Johnson struck out to end the inning. But given Johnson's night overall---more on that below---it's easy to suppose that he'd have found a way to plate Sadler had Sadler managed to stay attached to his base.

The "type of game" Solondz was referring to was the very long, extra-inning one that might be dubbed the extraneous-inning game: fun as free baseball is, there comes a point when you can't help but sigh "enough already." It's like too much drink: the fun wears off and you're left with the hangover and vague memories of a wasteful evening. If you wake up to discover you've also lost the game in question, it's a bit like realizing you didn't go home with that cutie at the bar you were hitting on.

Or in the Bulls' case last night, not hitting on.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about last night's ballgame wasn't that it billowed to 16 innings---the Bulls have had several long ones this season---but that the Bulls nearly won it in the regulation nine with only two hits. Louisville starter Ben Jukich, best remembered by Bulls fans as the guy who gave up Chris Richard's game-winning grand slam in Durham's wild, 11-inning, 13-9 win at the DBAP back in mid-May, took a no-hitter into the top of the seventh inning last night. He lost it when Matt Joyce blasted a long leadoff home run (estimated at 459 feet: wow) to tie the score 1-1.

That Durham's first hit of the night put them right into the thick of the game was a credit to starter James Houser, who had his best outing of the season to date after ceding his spot in the starting rotation to Tampa returnee Andy Sonnanstine. The tall young lefty, who had been walloped by the Bats in that same 13-9 win back in May, went seven innings last night, allowing just four hits---and more importantly, only one walk. (Houser is second in the league in walks allowed.) He was in line for the win when Elliot Johnson got the Bulls' second hit of the night, a homer off of Jukich in the eighth. He hit a Ruthian shot to left field, which may as well have an abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here sign on the wall for long fly balls: the wind current off the river in Louisville makes it very hard to hit a ball out to left.

Johnson's homer triggered a curious move by Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo. John Meloan was warming up alongside Dale Thayer in the bullpen during Johnson's at-bat, but as soon as Johnson gave the Bulls the lead, Meloan sat down. Thayer has made a few appearances of more than one inning this year, and Montoyo told me at one point earlier in the season that he's trying to get Thayer accustomed to throwing more than an inning at a time: that's how Thayer will earn success in the big leagues, where his stuff doesn't quite translate to the closer's role.

Thoughtful though it may have been, the move quite simply didn't work. Thayer threw a scoreless eighth inning, but he allowed consecutive doubles in the ninth and Louisville tied the game. It would then take seven more innings to arrive at the outcome. A mistake, in the end, settled the matter, and Solondz was right to note that the deeper into extra innings a game goes, the likelier it is to come home to roost on a miscue.

But although it was a literal fielding error that did the Bats in, to view that as the only and crucial mistake misses something about the way baseball works: in retrospect, you see that any of a clutch of mistakes could have undone either team, and in the end one of those mistakes happens to be the almost-random number that wins (or loses) that unpopular lottery. There were plenty of numbers that could have come up (un)lucky: Louisville had a leadoff triple in the 10th inning but failed to score the runner off of John Meloan. Sadler's pickoff in the 14th was forgotten because Johnson failed to follow with a hit. Later, Jorge Julio allowed leadoff walks in both of his innings of work, the 13th and 14th---in fact, he walked the first two men he faced in the 14th. Joe Bateman, who earned his second save of the season in the last three days, walked the leadoff man in the 16th. None of those four men scored, even though leadoff walks are like starting your drinking evening with Jagermeister shots: things are bound to go downhill from there.

As it happened, Louisville shortstop Chris Valaika misplayed Craig Albernaz's grounder to begin the top of the 16th inning, and that was the one over the eight for the Bats. Sadler sacrificed Albernaz to second, and Johnson doubled to score him with the go-ahead run.

What to make of Elliot Johnson? He can play several positions, has some pop in his bat, and plays hard all the time (he has a modicum of extra-curricular fame among Yankees fans for breaking Francisco Cervelli's wrist last year in Spring Training). But he also has middling career stats---he's never had a season OPS as high as .800 at any level---and he's in danger of stalling out at AAA. It isn't clear where his future is headed.

And yet he's already had a number of dramatic moments and key plays since his return to action with the Bulls after the thumb injury that cost him most of the season: a couple of game-winning homers, an important fielding play. Johnson has a sort of homing instinct for the hotspot, not unlike his teammates Jon Weber (who seems adept at starting important rallies) and Justin Ruggiano (who is good at finishing them, for better and worse). So if Ruggiano is The Roodge on his heroic nights, then Elliot Johnson, E. J., has to be the Eedge (say it out loud) on his. With a pair of go-ahead hits last night, he earned full Eedge honors.

A second apparently odd relief choice by Montoyo late in the game may, on reflection, make quite a lot of sense. Jason Childers breezed through the 15th inning, needing just nine pitches to go 1-2-3 through the top of Louisville's lineup on three groundouts. Given the lateness of the hour and the thinness of the bullpen, it would have made sense to let Childers finish things off in the 16th inning after the Bulls took the lead. But Montoyo summoned Joe Bateman instead. Bateman's last appearance, on Thursday, resulted in a heart-stopping save (his first of the year) that he very nearly blew, allowing two runs and putting the winning run in scoring position with one out. So it wasn't as if Bateman had earned the role of Dale Thayer's second mate.

Nonetheless, even though Childers was rested (and has generally pitched well lately), he was lifted for Bateman. Neil Solondz echoed my sentiments when he said, rather decorously, as Bateman took the mound, "I kind of felt comfortable with Jason Childers on the hill." Solondz then pointed out that Bateman had been up and warming in the bullpen multiple times since the 10th inning, which is fatiguing for a reliever. And after Bateman threw six straight balls to start the 16th, the unease seemed confirmed. But Bateman pitched past his troubles and closed out the game to secure Childers's seventh win of the season---only starter Wade Davis (eight) has more for Durham.

Later, it occurred to me that Montoyo may have been planning ahead. Saturday night's epic burned up most of his bullpen---Julio DePaula was the only reliever unused---and Matt DeSalvo starts on Sunday. DeSalvo hasn't lasted five innings in any of his last four starts, and there's every reason to think that long relief will be needed today. By saving some of Childers's bullets, Montoyo is giving himself the option of calling on him on consecutive days. With Dale Thayer probably unavailable after throwing 34 pitches last night, who knows but that Childers may find himself wearing the closer's hat tonight?

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