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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Durham Bulls drop second straight to Syracuse Chiefs: too late and too soon

Posted by on Sun, Aug 9, 2009 at 5:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM---It has turned into a rather dreary homestand for the Durham Bulls, who are a gloomy 3-4 and tied for the International League South Division lead with Gwinnett, which is somewhat comforting until you're reminded that the Bulls should probably be at least two games up. They just lost a pair of games they should have won.

I was thinking, on the way to the park last night, that one reason for the Bulls' middling results was that they hadn't had a really good starting pitching performance during the homestand. The best was Andy Sonnanstine's three runs in six innings on Tuesday night, which is really only decent, especially when you consider that he allowed nine hits in that game. It counted as a so-called "quality start," but all it did was reiterate that "quality start"---which designates at least six innings and fewer than four runs allowed---is a poorly conceived statistic: a season of "quality starts" translates to a thoroughly so-so 4.50 ERA.

So it seemed that the Bulls were badly in need of a stopper-like start, even a dominant start, and it further seemed that Wade Davis (pictured, top) was the man to give it to them. He has been a bit inconsistent recently, allowing five runs in three of his last five starts, but in his usual fashion he always competed hard, and it seemed only a matter of time before his determination was matched by results. Sure enough, that happened on Saturday night.

But for the second straight night, the Bulls lost late, 3-2.

Charlie Montoyo bemoaned his lineup's inconsistency as soon as he opened his mouth after the game. (His voice was still hoarse from the tirade that got him ejected from the previous night's loss. His raspy voice was a sign of a job well done.) Some nights, Montoyo noted, his hitters' approach is good; others, like Saturday, it isn't. "We've been like that almost the whole year," he noted, almost puzzled by the consistency problem. The Bulls looked anxious at the plate last night, overswinging, swinging too early in the count, getting under the ball and popping up against Chiefs' starter Marco Estrada. They made him look good, hitting a lot of lazy, medium-depth flyouts. When a whole team is doing that, you can't help but see it as a syndrome of impatience. The Bulls managed just two hits in seven innings off of Estrada, and they got their two runs, both unearned, with the help of two errors, one by Estrada himself. Otherwise, the Bulls looked off-balance and disjointed against a pitcher who topped out around 89 mph and had only so-so offspeed stuff. Estrada retired the last ten men he faced, needing just 34 pitches to dispatch them. "I'm not gonna give him credit," Montoyo said, more impressed by his hitters' inadequacy than the opposing pitcher's performance.

Nonetheless, Durham led 2-0 going into the top of the seventh inning. Wade Davis had thrown 86 pitches, still well under his limit. Mike Morse started the inning with a seven-pitch at-bat the ended in a single up the middle. Davis struck out Daryle [sic] Ward. Then Seth Bynum singled to right, but Davis broke back again, whiffing Ian Desmond. He was now at 108 pitches. Jason Childers was ready in the bullpen.

In a major-league game, you'd almost certainly make the pitching change here. Davis said after the game that "I had plenty left in the tank"; in this case, though, it's not a matter of physical stamina but of changing the game: Childers would give the Chiefs something entirely different to contend with.

I asked Montoyo after the game if he thought about pulling Davis after Desmond's strikeout. His response was immediate: "No. That was his game." And indeed it was. Davis was throwing all of his pitches exactly where he wanted them for most of the night. His slider was especially sharp, diving down with deep knifing action and beautifully offsetting his riding fastball (a four-seamer, I think) and his taut curveball. He also added a sinker as the evening wore on---a very deliberate mid-game move, he told us afterward, designed to keep the Chiefs from cheating on his fastball, which he had been cuffing right-handed hitters with very effectively. Few balls were hit hard off of Davis, and he struck out eight. Amazingly, he recorded only one groundball out, and it came in the first inning. But that wasn't a sign of something wrong: Davis has often been effective in the air this year. Overall, Saturday night's start was one of the best of the year for him.

Still, he appeared to have lost a fraction of his command in the seventh. In addition to the two singles he allowed, he also threw a wild pitch to Desmond that advanced the runners to second and third with two outs. The good news was that light-hitting catcher Jhonatan [still sic] Solano, the number nine hitter, was now at the plate. Montoyo left Davis in. Davis got ahead 0-2, and then left a fastball up and out over the plate. Solano punched it into right field for a game-tying, two-run single. Exit Davis. Childers came on and retired Norris Hopper on a pop-up, but it was one batter too late.

Both Montoyo and Davis said after the game that Davis had just made a mistake, and Solano had done his job and hit it well. Sometimes it's that simple. Unfortunately, that one mistake in an outing nearly free of them cost Davis the win.

Leading off the eighth for Syracuse against Childers, Pete Orr hit a liner past first base that bounded toward the Bulls' dugout and kicked off the railing there. Right fielder Matt Joyce misread the angle of the carom and slipped as he tried to change direction, scrabbling for the ball on his hands and knees as Orr sprinted to third base with a triple. Childers struck out Mike Vento and then got two strikes on Kory Casto; he seemed like he might avoid giving up the run. But Casto lifted a 2-2 pitch to medium-deep center field for a sacrifice fly that put the Chiefs ahead, 3-2.

That turned out to be the final score. In the bottom of the eighth, Matt Joyce nearly redeemed his misadventure in the field on Orr's triple. Joyce hit a sinking liner to center field with the tying run on second base; but Norris Hopper recovered after initially getting no read on its trajectory, and he caught it to retire the side. In the ninth, Chris Richard boomed a one-out double---it missed being a game-tying home run by just a few feet. Jon Weber and Rhyne Hughes were due next against Josh Wilkie, a former nondrafted free agent who was called up to Syracuse less than two weeks ago and was bidding for his first Triple-A save. But both Weber and Hughes, who are generally rather patient hitters, swung at the first pitch they saw.

Too soon! Make the greenhorn earn it! Weber flied to right and Hughes grounded to second, ending the game, and Hughes's hitting streak at 13 games. (He wasn't too bothered by it afterward; most hitters are probably aware that hitting streaks are mostly a matter of chance.) Game over---and all in all, a glum one. "No excuses," Montoyo said of his batters.

Some notes:

* The Chiefs' big, tall center fielder Justin Maxwell, who hit Friday's game-winning home run, was ejected in the sixth inning. Unhappy with a pair of called strikes from home plate umpire Kevin Causey, Maxwell turned to Causey and complained, then stalked about ten feet away from the batter's box, muttering. He returned still saying oaths, and Causey said something back. I suspect that something was "zip it or else," because Maxwell left it unzipped, still jawing with Causey, and Causey tossed Maxwell and his silver hammer out of the ballgame. The 6-foot-5 specimen reacted by getting right up (well, right down) in Causey's face; from where I sat, near field level behind home plate, it was easy to hear Maxwell say something that the family nature of this Web site prevents me from reprinting for you. Maxwell actually had to be restrained by his own third base coach for fear that he might bump Causey, which would earn Maxwell a suspension. It was a strange sequence of events, especially the rapidity with which Maxwell's temper exploded. And it was stranger still to see such a violent reaction to called strikes by a player who strikes out every third at-bat. If Maxwell, who has spent about three weeks with the major-league club this season, had as many plate appearances as the four guys ahead of him in the dubious race for the strikeout crown (it's actually a ten-gallon golden sombrero), he would be leading the league in Ks.

* Desmond Jennings sat out a second straight game with what was vaguely described to us as a sore shoulder. Seemed like something else was up, but we left it at that. Montoyo suggested that Jennings would probably be back in the lineup on Sunday.

* Ray Sadler, who was released by the Rays a couple of days ago, has found work again. He was re-signed by the Houston Astros, who also had Sadler in their system in 2007 and 2008. The Astros immediately assigned him to Corpus Christi in the Double-A Texas League. Sadler was an All-Star with Corpus Christi in 2007. He's from Clifton, TX, so it's nice to see him get a chance to play closer to home. It's nice to see him get a chance to play, period: Sadler was an affable, easygoing presence in the clubhouse.

* In the latest chapter of Catchers in the Rays, Michel Hernandez was designated for assignment to make room for newly acquired Greg Zaun. It turned out that Bulls pitcher John Meloan, who was on the 40-man roster, was DFA'd not to accommodate Zaun but for a different purpose: so that the Rays could sign reliever R. J. Swindle, whom they claimed off waivers from Milwaukee. Acquiring any person or object named Swindle seems like you're just asking for it. Perhaps hit by buyer's remorse for that very reason, the Rays suddenly changed their minds and went out and claimed another pitcher, the 40-year-old righty Russ Springer (which made me go: Russ Springer is still playing baseball?). So they quickly DFA'd Swindle, and then, deciding they wanted Springer on the 25-man roster, DFA'd erstwhile Bull Joe Dillon as well. Dillon has been on the Rays' major-league roster for most of the season as a utility player, but apparently his utility had nothing to do with actually playing baseball. He had only 35 plate appearances in 15 games for Tampa.

So it's possible that, if Hernandez and/or Swindle and/or Dillon clears waivers, we could see some combination of them in Bulls' uniforms again soon. Given that Shawn Riggans can't seem to stay healthy, I wouldn't be surprised to see Hernandez come down to Durham and split time with John Jaso. The Rays really like Hernandez, despite his obvious shortcomings as a hitter, and would like to keep him in the organization. Plus, he started the year in Durham and was called up to Tampa early on to replace the injured Riggans; so it would make a certain kind of sense to have him sent back down to Durham and replace an injured Riggans again as the season winds down.

You got all that? Me neither. One thing I think we can all get, though, is that the Bulls could really use a win on Sunday in order to salvage the last game of a very disappointing homestand, finish it 4-4, and stay in first place, with or without Gwinnett. Andy Sonnanstine's the man on the spot. His opponent, Ross Detwiler, is the Washington Nationals' No. 1 pitching prospect. It's never easy, is it?

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