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Monday, September 7, 2009

Durham Bulls edge Norfolk Tides, coast toward regular-season finish line

Posted by on Mon, Sep 7, 2009 at 5:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM---There's a tacit understanding among ballplayers regarding season-ending series. If the postseason is all settled, the deal is this: the pitchers throw strikes, the hitters swing at them; you avoid long at-bats; you avoid injuries, too, by staying out of collisions on the basepaths; you try to decide games quickly and painlessly---and with a bonhomie that revolves around mutual good sportsmanship.

Cut to last night at the DBAP, home of the IL South Division Champion Durham Bulls. After three innings, the game was on a brisk 90-minute pace. The two starting pitchers had combined to throw just 57 pitches. Only one man had reached base, Justin Ruggiano, and he was thrown out (on what looked like a bad call) trying to stretch his liner off the Blue Monster into a double. We were cruising, coasting, flying toward the finish line. When Sean Rodriguez hit his first home run as a Bull, a solo shot in the fifth inning (which I predicted when he stepped to the plate!), it felt like that might turn out to be the only run of the game.

It wasn't. The Bulls fell behind, tied it up, and won 3-2---and wouldn't you know it, even with the suspense drained out of the regular season, they did it in dramatic fashion.

For the second straight night, the Bulls sent an FNG to the mound. A night after Rayner Oliveros picked up his first win as a Durham Bull, recently promoted Paul Phillips tried to do the same. Phillips was making his first start in a professional career that began in 2005. In his first appearance with the Bulls, about a week ago, he hit 95 mph on the radar gun. But knowing that he needed to pace himself, Phillips stayed in the low 90s, and was very effective there---thanks partially, of course, to the compliantly free-swinging Norfolk Tides. Phillips was perfect through three innings and had no trouble until the fifth, when he escaped a bases-loaded jam unscathed. He left after throwing 64 pitches. Phillips hadn't thrown more than 49 in a game this season, and he averaged less than 19 per appearance in Montgomery.

Phillips was in line for the win when Sean Rodriguez hit David Pauley's fourth pitch of the fifth inning over the Blue Monster (did I mention that I totally called it? I did?), even though we saw Ruggiano exercise the no-collision clause later in the inning by literally running around a play at the plate, where he was out by several steps. (Rather than slide, he sidestepped the catcher.) But another FNG, Heath Rollins, gave up two runs in the seventh on a walk, a triple and a single. The Bulls tied it in the bottom of the inning on Ruggiano's RBI double, which Melvin Dorta misplayed off the Blue Monster: the ball hit Dorta in the shoulder after it caromed, and trickled away toward the left-field line. That allowed Rodriguez to score from first without a throw.

It was still 2-2 in the ninth inning when Tides manager Gary Allenson sent Bob McCrory in to pitch. I assume that Allenson did this because he, like everyone else on both clubs, was trying to avoid extra innings in a game that the teams had agreed to dispense with quickly. McCrory's line against the Bulls coming into the game was remarkable, in the same way that the smell of sulfur is remarkable and you have to hold your nose: 10 2/3 innings, 20 hits, nine runs, four walks, two strikeouts.

Ruggiano and Elliot Johnson grounded out, though (Johnson's grounder was well-hit, but right at shortstop Blake Davis). Two outs. Extra innings were forthcoming, in karmic retribution for the teams' collusive efforts to hurry things along. Charlie Montoyo told us after the game that Craig Albernaz would have pitched the 10th inning. Ugh. And ugh, too, for the sportswriter, who didn't have the stamina to gut out an extraneous-innings epic that was, it has to be said, completely meaningless.

But Heather turned to me and said, "It's okay. Jaso's going to hit a double, and then Ray Olmedo, the RBI king, will drive him in." There were so many things wrong with that suggestion that my brain started rolling over itself trying to sort them all out. But before I could make any headway, guess what happened? Jaso doubled down the right field line on the first pitch McCrory threw him; Desmond Jennings pinch-ran for him; and Olmedo hit McCrory's very next pitch into right field for a game-winning single. (And I thought I was psychic.) Hey, they were just swinging early in the count like they were supposed to, right?

For posterity: Bob McCrory's ERA versus the Bulls is 7.94. Versus the rest of the International League it is 2.98.

***

Superstition dictates that the Bulls should lose Monday afternoon's regular-season finale, as an exorcism of defeat before the playoffs begin. The team has a final-game tradition of passing the same bat from hitter to hitter, to see how long they can go before it breaks. Jason Cromer will start for Durham. You'd think that Charlie Montoyo would skip Cromer's turn in order to keep him fresh for the division series, but according to Montoyo, "Cromer will go or we don't have anybody for the game." Montoyo said that Cromer will pitch at Louisville on Friday on three days' rest, and for that reason he will be on a truncated pitch limit this afternoon. Once he's done, we'll see the usual hodgepodge of relievers, almost certainly including catcher Craig Albernaz. (I wonder if Norfolk will counter with infielder Brandon Pinckney, who has made three relief appearances this season, one versus the Bulls.)

So Cromer goes on Friday, but what about Wednesday and Thursday at home? Jeremy Hellickson is lined up for Wednesday on regular rest, but there is no obvious candidate on the roster for Thursday. We asked Montoyo, and he surprised us with this name: Mitch Talbot! Almost totally forgotten since he went on the disabled list three months ago with what we were told was "shoulder stiffness," Talbot has rehabbed a bit down in the Rookie League (four appearances, 11 total innings) but hasn't been on anyone's radar in Durham. He wasn't expected to return this year. Montoyo wasn't making any promises, but his mere mention of Talbot's name probably meant that it's safe to pencil him in, on yet another limited pitch count, as Thursday's starter. No telling what we'll see from Talbot that evening. At his best (and his healthiest), he's a candidate to be a solid back-end starter in the majors; at his worst, a self-sabotaging disaster.

It would be nice if Wade Davis came back down to Durham, now that he's made his fill-in start for Tampa. The "problem" is that Davis was absolutely superb in his major-league debut on Sunday, tossing seven innings of three-hit ball versus Detroit, allowing just one run on a solo homer by former Bull Aubrey Huff. He walked one and struck out nine Tigers, including six of the first seven men he faced. Davis should have notched his first big-league win, but the Rays' bullpen sprung---or do I mean Springered?---yet another late-inning leak. I have no idea what the Rays were or are now planning for Davis, but if they were waiting to see how he'd do on Sunday before making decisions, then we may not see him again in Durham---especially if the Rays decide to call it a season (they're nearing also-ran status) and start taking a closer look at their prospects as September unwinds.

In any case, just because it's the International League playoffs, it doesn't appear that Charlie Montoyo's caulking-and-spackling job is going to change when it comes to filling a nine-inning game with pitchers. We talked briefly about the late-arriving windfall of infielder Sean Rodriguez, who brings a hefty power bat to the middle of the lineup, but Montoyo hastily praised Rodriguez before immediately steering us back to the main road: "At the end of the day, it's gonna be up to our pitching." That pitching includes a fragile rehabber slated for Game Two, a guy going on three days' rest in Game Three, and a blank space where the Game Four starter is supposed to be---unless it's Rayner Oliveros, who has made two career appearances in Triple-A, both of them in the past week. Oh, well. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

I'll try to have at least a sketched-out scouting report on the Louisville Bats before the series starts. Meanwhile, today is the last day of the regular season, and it'll start at 1:05 p.m. Monday's game promises to be even shorter than Sunday's 133-minute affair---the Bulls and Tides know full well that it's Labor Day, and would surely like to keep the toil to a minimum (plus, the team party was Sunday night, and it had an open bar; you know what that means)---so you'll be home in time for afternoon tea. Now that September has taken hold, the afternoons are lovely again, and the Bulls are champions again. What better way to celebrate all that, and a day without work, by getting out to the DBAP? See you there.

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