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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gwinnett Braves rally past Durham Bulls: Abre-eww!

Posted by on Wed, Aug 12, 2009 at 5:00 AM

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What was that I was saying about the Bulls' latest roster changes leaving them with the best relief staff in the league? Including the game after which I wrote that, the Durham bullpen has allowed 12 runs, 11 earned, in 13 2/3 innings pitched over the last five games. That's a 7.90 ERA. They've also allowed every runner they've inherited (four in all) to score.

Last night's culprit was the normally dependable Winston Abreu (pictured), who came on in the eighth inning with the Bulls leading 4-2 and did two things he seldom does: give up walks and homers. In the eighth, he walked the first two batters he faced. A pair of singles scored a run, and Abreu got a huge break when Diory Hernandez didn't see Brooks Conrad holding at third base on the latter of those hits. Hernandez and Conrad both wound up on third base, and Conrad had no choice but to put himself in a rundown and get thrown out at home. Abreu got out of the inning without further damage, but in the ninth Reid Gorecki hit Abreu's first pitch for a home run. Wes Timmons lined out to third---apparently, Abreu wasn't fooling anyone---and Brandon Jones put Abreu out of (or deeply into) his misery by hitting another homer, giving the Braves a 5-4 comeback win and sole possession of first place in the International League South Division.

Coming into the game, Abreu had allowed 16 hits and just one home run all year for the Bulls. He allowed four hits and two homers last night. The two walks he gave up represent 15% of his season total. Given that he issued both of those walks in his first inning of work, along with two hits---and needed 24 pitches to get through the inning---why was Abreu still out there in the ninth?

I have no idea, but speculation and a few notes follow.

Possibilities: 1) Having already used four relievers, Charlie Montoyo was trying to save the rest of his bullpen, especially Dale Thayer (who was the only other rested reliever). 2) Montoyo/Tampa wants Abreu to stretch out into two-inning appearances on a regular basis, since that's what he'll be asked to do in the majors should he make it back. 3) Thayer was at a wine tasting.

I suspect it was some combination of Nos. 1 and 2, but it seems to me that Montoyo wasn't quite managing this game for the sheer sake of winning it. When a guy struggles and toils like Abreu did in the eighth, it doesn't make much tactical sense to run him back out there. As it was, Abreu took his first loss of 2009 for any of the three teams on which he's pitched.

Montoyo would have felt no need at all to use Abreu for two innings if he'd let Jason Childers pitch more than one of his own. Childers needed just 10 pitches to retire the Braves in the seventh, and that included an extra batter enabled by Ray Olmedo's fielding error at third base, and Reid Gorecki's double. (An unearned run then scored on a soft groundout.) Perhaps Montoyo was saving Childers for more work in Wednesday's game; but if so, he must not have remembered Leo Durocher's maxim: "You don't save your best pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it may rain." Childers may not be the best pitcher on the Bulls' staff---but come to think of it, for the last several weeks he pretty much has been.

Montoyo's compromised decision-making about his late-inning relievers actually goes all the way back to the beginning of the game, because he had nothing but relievers to use and so wasn't driving on fully inflated tires. Starter Carlos Hernandez had to miss his scheduled start with swelling in his pitching hand (he's expected to make his next start), and so middle relievers Calvin Medlock and Julio DePaula tossed the first six innings of the game. They were very good, allowing only a single run between them and stranding seven baserunners. (BTW, I didn't count their combined "start" in my bullpen statistical computations at the top of this post.) But their work still left a third of the game for their confreres in the bullpen, and Abreu couldn't finish it. It was his first blown save of the year. Some sort of closer's swine flu must have been going around last night, because the Yankees' Mariano Rivera allowed his first run in something like 16 years.

The Bulls' fielders didn't help matters much---or rather, a couple of them helped tremendously and three were saboteurs. In the first inning, Desmond Jennings robbed Brandon Jones of an extra-base hit, perhaps even a home run, with a leaping catch at the center-field wall. A couple of innings later, second baseman Elliot Johnson took away a two-run single from Barbaro Canizares with a highlight-reel catch in shallow center field. It should be noted that two runners were in scoring position on that play only because Justin Ruggiano had kicked a ball in right field to allow them to advance a base. Also, Jon Weber apparently had trouble getting a read on Chris Burke's can of corn to left in the fourth inning, and Burke wound up with a sacrifice fly that Weber might have prevented had he lined up the catch better.

And what to make of Ray Olmedo? He has made some superb fielding plays at third base this year, and he often looks like a more than capable utility infielder. He has committed 13 errors this season, though, most on the team, and a whopping six of them have come in just two games (four of them in this one). Apparently, he has an evil twin. Last night, Olmedo's second miscue of the game led to a costly unearned run. He also drove in a run with an RBI single, but there must be some universal law that dictates that if you let one in, you've got to knock in two.

I guess John Jaso had a look at my report yesterday, because he responded by hitting his first home run since June 22, ending a 7 1/2-week dry stretch. Jaso clanged it off the foul pole down the right-field line, 325 feet away from home plate. Not exactly a tape-measure blast, but it would be nice to see a hit like that get Jaso unwound and in touch with his power stroke as we approach the stretch drive.

Unfortunately, Jaso was the only baserunner the Bulls had after the fifth inning last night. Six of the final seven Durham hitters struck out.

Desmond Jennings has only one extra-base hit in 32 at-bats for the Bulls, but he's showing evidence of his hot-prospect status, with varying levels of subtlety. The smoking gun last night was his great first-inning catch, but Jennings also continued to do what Elliot Johnson praised him for the other day: working the count in the leadoff spot. Jennings saw more than 25 pitches in his four at-bats last night. He went 1-4 with an RBI single.

The Bulls haven't played very well over their last 10 games---they're just 4-6 in that stretch with some bad losses, including last night's. Right now, this is an underachieving team; they're performing beneath their level of talent, squandering too many of their opportunities and manufacturing too many of them for opponents. They're only a game out of first place, and they still top the wild-card standings, but with 27 games remaining---and zero off-days, I might add, in the heat of summer---there's little time left for the sort of middling, muddling baseball they've been playing lately. If they're going to reach the playoffs, they'll have to get it together and make one final charge. Might as well start it Wednesday with Jason Cromer on the mound, because the Braves have rehabbing big-leaguer Tim Hudson scheduled to face the Bulls on Thursday.

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