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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Durham Bulls edge Charlotte Knights in 12 innings: Small-ball ends a long day

Posted by on Thu, Apr 22, 2010 at 7:00 AM

Virgil Vasquez
  • Virgil Vasquez
DBAP/DURHAM—Triangle Offense was forced to leave the DBAP during the 92-minute rain delay that made a long game longer. The game time of the the Bulls' 12-inning, 6-5 win over Charlotte was 3:36, but if you stayed all the way through, you spent five-plus hours at the ballpark. Circumstances forced me away with the score tied, 5-5, in the eighth inning, when the rains came.

In extras, the bullpens fought an attrition war, and finally in the 12th inning the Knights were forced to go to Freddy Dolsi, whom the Bulls had pasted for six runs in 1 2/3 innings two days before in Charlotte. Fernando Perez singled, moved to second on a passed ball, to third on a flyout by Justin Ruggiano, and across home plate when Charlotte shortstop Brent Lillibridge threw wide to first after fielding Hank Blalock's grounder. The Bulls are a league-best 11-3, and have won six straight.

But the Bulls claimed Wednesday's win in an unusually small-ball-ish way, given the Bulls' recent outburst of run production via lethal power. Coming into yesterday's game, Durham had scored 53 runs in its previous five games, hitting 15 doubles and 10 homers in that span. After the Bulls tallied 14 runs against Norfolk, I cautioned fans that of course the Bulls wouldn't continue to score that many runs per game. Nope: instead they've averaged "only" 10. All those power bats the Rays have congregated in the Durham cave have been doing precisely what could be expected of them, and then some. Dan Johnson, who hit another homer yesterday—a weird opposite-field pop-fly that just barely cleared the Blue Monster—now leads the International League with seven taters. No one else has more than four. Johnson is on pace to hit over 70 home runs this season. Don't worry/hope, he'll be gone long before he has the chance.

Given all the power-hitting the Bulls have been doing lately, it was almost cute to watch them steal three bases in the first inning. (The long-ball Bulls actually lead the league in steals, with 24 in 27 attempts. Elliot Johnson and Fernando Perez have 15 of them, which is more than 10 whole IL teams.) Cute because, after Perez and Jennings dashed around the bases a bit, Hank Blalock rendered their coltish fun pointless by walloping a three-run homer to right field. It was kind of like watching the main event after sitting through an entertaining undercard full of bantamweights. Two innings later, Johnson added his two-run rainbow, and it seemed like yet another Bulls stampede was underway.

Not so fast.

Virgil Vasquez, who started for the Bulls, was a last-minute addition to the club. He signed with the Rays on April 2, just before the season began, too late to appear in the Bulls' Media Guide. He has pitched in 19 major-league games with Pittsburgh and Detroit, a fringe prospect in his seventh minor-league season. His stuff was unexceptional, but he did manage to do one very exceptional thing on Wednesday: In 4 2/3 innings he faced 23 batters, and not a single one hit a ground ball (well, maybe one of the Knights' four singles was a grounder). Center fielder Desmond Jennings had six putouts by the time there was one out in the fourth inning. The Knights hit several balls hard, high and deep that died in fielders' gloves over 300 feet from home plate. (With the heavy, damp air, the ball wasn't carrying; Blalock's homer was crushed but landed just three rows back in the right-centerfield bleachers. He hit another rocket later, toward the same spot, that seemed destined for the seats but wound up being caught on the warning track.)

Vasquez's scary fly ball habit put me immediately in mind of James Houser, the lefty who started the 2009 season in Durham but got himself released by July. Houser's early-season sorcery made it possible for him to throw a few games where he seemed to have guys all over the basepaths and yet always seemed to wind up allowing two or three runs in five innings. Nonetheless, you can't keep going the flyball route unless you have overpowering heat on your fastball, and Houser never got much over 85 mph. (Houser signed with the Marlins in the offseason, by the way.)

The difference between Houser and Vasquez, for the first few innings yesterday, was control. Houser walked way too many batters—he led the league in free passes at the time of his release, if I recall—but Vasquez issued only one base on balls through his first four innings of work, striking out four. His fastball touched 92 mph on the stadium gun a couple of times, and you could convince yourself that he kept hitters just off-balance enough to make his long outs look almost by-design. The Knights scored a run off him in the third inning, but it was plated on a bloop single by Stefan Gartrell, one that right fielder Justin Ruggiano didn't exactly go all out for.

But the wheels came off in the fifth. Vasquez surrendered a leadoff walk to the light-hitting Lillibridge. He got C. J. Retherford to fly out (to deep left), and then got ahead of Alejandro de Aza 0-2. But then he missed with his next pitch and de Aza laced a triple down the right field line, just past first baseman Chris Richard's valiant dive. Lillibridge scored, and Jordan Danks followed with a hard lineout to left for a sacrifice fly. Two outs now and no one on, but Gartrell singled—his third straight hit of the afternoon—and then Josh Kroeger hit a moonshot homer to right.

All of a sudden it was 5-5. Virgil had led the Bulls back to a dark wood, and hit the showers—or wandered off to write Eclogues or something. His risky business on the mound had caught up to him a touch too soon. Had he escaped the fifth without those four runs scoring, he'd have been in line for the win. It remains to be seen, of course, what he'll do over the course of several starts; but given that his signing came just after the news that Jason Cromer, who was slotted into the Bulls' rotation, would be out for a while with elbow trouble, you can't help but think that Vasquez has to do a lot, and quickly, in order to keep a job for himself rather than just keep it warm for Cromer—especially with the arrival from Montgomery of Aneury Rodriguez, who tossed seven scoreless innings in his Bulls debut at Charlotte on Tuesday. When (if?) Jeff Bennett returns from his early-season arm tightness, Vasquez could be DFA'd, or at least Hudson-Valleyed until further notice.

Vasquez or no Vasquez (hey, that could be a variation of the DBAP's "Fish or No Fish" contest!), the Bulls might not have needed extra innings had they avoided their first-of-the-season DBAP S.B.G. (Senseless Baserunning Gaffe; I acquired the habit of using the initials last year because it happened rather too often, I'm afraid). In the last of the sixth, Dan Johnson led off with a walk. Joe Dillon followed with a medium-deep fly ball to right-centerfield that in no way looked like an obvious hit. But for some reason Johnson rounded second base and was heading for third when Gartrell caught Dillon's fly for an out. Johnson was doubled off easily.

Guess what happened next? Chris Richard walked, and Angel Chavez hit a single to center that might have scored Johnson had he not by then been sitting in the dugout.

And so it went on for five more innings, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo burning through Joe Bateman, Joaquin Benoit, Winston Abreu and Dale Thayer before going to Double-A overachiever Brian Baker, who got his second win of the year. Both teams had plenty of baserunners as the game yawned into extras, but it was the Bulls who finally got the bit of help they needed, exploiting a passed ball and an error to plate the decisive run. Fernando Perez's speed and basepath-smarts didn't hurt either (although he had been thrown out stealing a couple of innings earlier). Perhaps all the thunder and power had been sucked out of the atmosphere by the drenching thunderstorm that delayed the game. Neither team had an extra-base hit after the fifth inning.

Durham and Charlotte conclude their home-and-home Thursday at 7:05 PM before the Gwinnett Braves roll up I-85 to face Jeremy Hellickson on Friday. I'll see you at the DBAP then.

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The power-hitting Durham Bulls needed extra-inning small-ball to edge the Charlotte Knights at the DBAP.

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