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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Durham Bulls sink Norfolk Tides for third straight win

Posted by on Thu, Aug 27, 2009 at 5:00 AM

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Jeff Bennett's arrival in Durham a couple of weeks ago has drawn relatively little attention. Akinori Iwamura and Fernando Perez are getting most of the attention on their rehab assignments, and Tampa had already recently demoted another struggling major-league reliever, Joe Nelson. Bennett doesn't even appear on the Bulls' roster list on the team's web site.

But a Bull he is, and although Bennett (pictured), who is primarily a reliever, has been far from perfect in two starts---he has walked five in 9 1/3 innings, a habit that suits him well to the Bulls' walk-happy staff---he has also done a serviceable job filling in for injured lefty starter Carlos Hernandez. Pitching last night against Norfolk, Bennett lasted 5 1/3 innings, and his only significant mistake was surrendering a two-run homer to---you ready for this?---former Bull Rhyne Hughes. (Yes, okay, Rhyne, we're sorry we traded you. Now that's enough of that.)

Other than that, Norfolk failed to score, thanks in no small part to some wiggling out of jams by Julio DePaula and Joe Bateman---although granted that they brought the pectin to the mound with them. Bennett got his first victory as a Bull and Durham beat Norfolk, 4-2. The lineup wasn't especially potent, but they scored the runs they needed to score, all of them by the fifth inning. The win gave the Bulls their first three-game winning streak in about a month, and it pushed their lead over the Tides to six games in the wild-card race with 12 left to play. Syracuse beat Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to remain 3.5 games back. (Don't look now, but the revivified Chiefs trail the Yankees by just 2.5 games in the IL North Division.)

More intriguingly, Charlotte rallied to beat Gwinnett in 11 innings, 10-7, pulling Durham to within just a single game of the Braves for the South Division lead. (Who knew that Reid Gorecki, called up to the majors a week ago, was the team's glue? His departure snapped a five-game winning streak, and Gwinnett is just 3-4 since.) Things are getting quite interesting, to say the least, as the season races to its close.

A few notes follow.

* Reid Brignac is in a slump. After going 4/5 at Gwinnett on August 10, he was batting .291/.343/.445/.788. Those numbers were already a bit off his peak totals: although his batting average has hovered in a remarkably consistent zone all season, rarely lower than .285 or higher than .300, his OPS had ranged about 30-40 points higher for the first half of July.

But since that four-hit game, Brignac has caved in. In 12 games, he has gone 10/51 (.196) with no extra-base hits, struck out 14 times, and drawn just one walk. (Weirdly, he had a nine-game hitting streak, 10 if you include the four-hit game at Gwinnett.) Since hitting three homers in two games against Charlotte back on July 3 & 4, Brignac's slugging percentage has been on an almost uninterrupted decline, from .481 all the way down to its current .415. His stats now: .278/.326/.412/.739. None of those numbers have been so low since mid-May (the .412 SLG is at its lowest since April 26). Is he tired? Anxious? Bummed out to have been sent back down to Durham after his recent injury-replacement callup? If the latter, his current showing isn't exactly encouraging the Rays to bring him back to Tampa when rosters expand. And he's hurting the Bulls with his over-aggressive, unproductive at-bats. Brignac's getting by on his glove right now, yet he has also committed two errors during the recent slide at the plate.

* Elliot Johnson was activated from the disabled list and Henry Mateo, who injured his thumb (or was it his finger?) on Sunday, was added to it. Johnson wasn't in last night's lineup, though. As a consequence, Ray Olmedo has now started 13 straight games for the Bulls. Although he has---again oddly, like Brignac---a nine-game hitting streak, in all but one of those games he's had exactly one hit; so his batting average has only increased five points, to .246. And because he has only one extra-base hit these past two weeks, his OPS has barely budged. It's at an anemic .623. He's got to be terribly tired.

But it's churlish to complain when the team is winning. Shawn Riggans is showing signs of life at the plate, Winston Abreu and Dale Thayer are looking much better---Abreu is probably better than he's been all year---and the Bulls are putting the heat on Gwinnett while leaving Norfolk and Syracuse out in the cold. The one thing you can count on, of course, is change (roster expansion on September 1 waits like a debt-collector) but right now, the change is all upward. Jason Cromer gets a chance to add to the fun on Thursday at Norfolk.

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