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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Durham Bulls rally to edge Gwinnett Braves: Battlers Up!

Posted by on Sat, Apr 24, 2010 at 7:00 AM

The Bulls Brian Baker earned Fridays win.
  • The Bulls' Brian Baker earned Friday's win.
DBAP/DURHAM—During Jeremy Hellickson's warmup pitches before the top of the first inning last night, something didn't seem quite right. Hard to say what, exactly; after the game he said he felt fine in the bullpen and then on the mound. But he walked two of the first three Gwinnett Braves he faced—coming into the game, he had walked a total of three batters in his first three starts combined, covering 19 innings—and Barbaro Canizares followed with a single. Hellickson had thrown only fastballs to that point, save perhaps for one curve, and up stepped Freddie Freeman, the Braves' No. 1 prospect. Hellickson went to his changeup a few times and got Freeman to strike out swinging, and then fooled Joe Thurston with a curve; Thurston popped out to end the threat with the bases loaded, It was a 12-minute, 25-pitch inning, and 13 of the pitches were balls—all uncharacteristically high totals for the Silent Cyclone.

But the good news was that he had fought out of the jam and allowed no runs to score. I decided right then and there that, no matter what happened the rest of the way, Charlie Montoyo would later say of Hellickson, "He battled." I even wrote it down, in quotes, in my notepad.

I confess that I was kind of begging the question (or, if you insist, the answer) a bit: Montoyo likes to say "he battled." (He also likes to use "lights-out" to describe excellent pitching performances; he likes it so much, he said, that his wife asked him to find another phrase.) It's easy for a pitcher when he's got great stuff on a given day—the New York Yankees' Phil Hughes had such an outing on Wednesday—or when every pitch a hitter sees looks as big as a cantaloupe. You show your true stuff when you haven't got any stuff, and if the first inning of last night's game was any indication, Helllickson had no stuff.

Neither, for a while, did the Bulls. The juggernaut that scored 69 runs in the previous seven games managed just one in the first six innings against the Braves, stranding eight baserunners. Home plate umpire Manny Gonzalez's strike zone was a bit wide, too, and three Bulls struck out looking. Fernando Perez led off the fifth inning with a double—it was probably the farthest he's hit a ball all year, reaching the left-centerfield wall on the fly about 375 from home plate. In an effort to flash his wheels and perhaps jump-start the lineup, he tried for third base but was thrown out by a step. Later, Dan Johnson was thrown out at home when he was inexplicably waved around third by Charlie Montoyo despite little chance of scoring. Right fielder Gregor Blanco's weak throw bounced about five times but still beat Johnson to the plate by about 15 feet. It appeared to be one of those nights when the Bulls had nothing working for them, not even Perez's speed. The very bases were non-compliant: the Keystone Sack came loose at one point and had to be refastened to its spot, causing a delay in a game that went on for three hours and 11 minutes.

But unlike the second base bag, Hellickson never found his groove. Thirteen of the 20 men he faced reached base. He couldn't throw any of his pitches for strikes. He hit a batter. Even some of the foul balls were hit hard. Only half of his 86 pitches were strikes, and they produced only six swings-and-misses. (For what it's worth, he seemed to be missing low most of the time.) He threw many more curveballs than we're accustomed to seeing—he's clearly trying to develop the pitch—and relatively few changeups (eight, by my count). The curve was bad. The fastball was bad. Everything was bad. He was on the mound for 13 minutes in the second inning, 13 more in the third. (By contrast, you could add up seven of his eight innings from his last start and come up with 29 total minutes). He threw more strikes in the fourth (11 of 14 pitches), but they were mostly right down the middle and he's lucky they resulted in outs. It was the worst performance, probably, of his Bulls career, and he was gone before the fourth inning was over.

A poor start by the team's ace and a frustrated offense. Bad night.

Oh—except the Bulls won, 5-4.

The win was the Bulls' eighth straight, the team's longest streak since 2004. When you're on a roll, you probably never think you're out of any game, no matter how far behind you are; Justin Ruggiano said so in the clubhouse later.

And the Bulls weren't very far behind, thanks in large part to the third-wheel of their happy pitching/hitting symbiosis: fielding. Hellickson scattered the seeds of runs all over the basepaths, but catcher Alvin Colina extirpated two of them trying to steal bases, Ruggiano threw out another trying to score from second on a single to right field, and yet another runner got himself erased when he was struck by a teammate's ground ball. Hellickson should probably have left with six runs charged to his ledger, but by the time the hurlyburly was done and Hellickson's battle lost and won, by the time Brian Baker came on in relief with two outs in the fourth, it was somehow only 3-0, despite Hellickson having pitched like, well, a Butcher.

Baker wasn't around to talk to after the game, which was too bad, because he is probably why the Bulls won. He tossed 4 1/3 innings with just 48 pitches, protecting a thin bullpen. The only damage was Mitch Jones's solo home run in the seventh, with Baker tiring. (Jones led the minor leagues in homers last year with 35 for the Albuquerque Isotopes.) In fact, Baker was in a state of fray for his last two innings; in addition to Jones's home run, he recorded four outs via rockets or deep flies that found fielders' gloves. He was, to be fair, a bit lucky. But I spent enough time worrying the luck bone last season to know that it probably evens itself out in the end. Had I been Charlie Montoyo, I wouldn't have sent a clearly wobbling Baker back out in the eighth inning. In retrospect, that's pedantry: He's now tied with Hellickson for the team lead in wins with three. His ERA is 1.35. Will it stay there? Probably not; on the other hand, no one would have predicted that Jason Cromer would compile a sub-2.00 ERA through July of 2009, which he did. I'm looking forward to catching up with Baker next time I'm in the clubhouse.

If Hellickson was the Butcher and Baker was, well, the Baker, then who was the Candlestick Maker? That would have to be Ruggiano, whose re-education continues apace. He flew out to deep center field in the first inning, was called out on questionable strikes in the third—the new Roodge just calmly walked away from Gonzalez's injustice ("Gonzalez's Injustice" sounds like one of those vexing philosophical Thought Experiments), rather than complain—and grounded out in the fifth.

But he kept battling. He faced a different pitcher in his next at-bat, the righty reliever Scott Proctor. Proctor was a good pitcher who was unconscionably overused out of the bullpen by manager Joe Torre in New York and Los Angeles in 2006 and 2007, turning Proctor's elbow ligaments into mush and sending him to the reconstructive surgery table last season. (Nice story about him here.) He's trying to come back, and it hasn't gone well so far, thanks largely to the Bulls, who tagged him for four runs and a loss in two-thirds of an inning in Gwinnett less than two weeks ago. (Brian Baker got the win in that game, too.) Proctor came on in the seventh inning and retired the first two batters. The Bulls seemed like they might lay down their weapons: they'd won seven straight; sometimes it just doesn't go your way; your starter is flat and you can't put together a rally; you're trying to win the war, not the battles; let's get 'em tomorrow.

But Elliot Johnson singled up the middle, and Ruggiano came up. If The Roodge can keep having at-bats like the one he had against Proctor—and like a few others he's already had this season—he stands a strong chance of winding up in the majors again soon. He saw eighth pitches from Proctor, fouling off a few very good breaking balls, holding on at 2-2, and then 3-2; and then he hit the ninth pitch, a fastball, over the left-centerfield wall for a two-run home run. The next four Bulls reached base on hits or walks, and the game was tied.

Then, in the eighth inning, Ruggiano stepped up with two on and two outs against Christhian [sic] Martinez. Ruggiano had faced Martinez in Gwinnett on April 14 and doubled off of him. He remembered the earlier at-bat and was prepared for this one. Reasoning that Martinez wouldn't try to get a first-pitch fastball past him with the go-ahead run aboard, Ruggiano sat on the changeup or something soft. Sure enough, he got it and drilled Martinez's first pitch to left for a double, scoring Alvin Colina—fitting, since Colina had saved two runs early on by throwing out base-stealers.

Suddenly the Bulls were winning; suddenly the scoreboard indicated that this team that had looked dead early had banged out 15 hits (a whopping seven off Proctor in 1 2/3 innings). Moreover it was the ninth inning and the game was almost over—I had to dash back up to the press box in order to join the parade to the (victorious!) clubhouse. Joaquin Benoit came on for Baker and worked a strong ninth, pitching around a two-out single by Matt Young, to earn his second save, finishing off Gregor Blanco with a diving breaking ball that Blanco swung way over.

And lest you think that Ruggiano's go-ahead double was enough for these veteran, hard-nosed Bulls, Charlie Montoyo called our attention to the at-bat following Ruggiano's. It was Hank Blalock's, and Blalock was in a position to give the Bulls some breathing room with two men in scoring position. He nailed a hard line drive—right at the shortstop for the third out. Montoyo pointed out that Blalock was visibly aggrieved by the result; he was fighting hard all the way to the end, even for cushion-runs that the Bulls turned out not to need. There's a maturity to the 2010 Bulls that expresses itself not in ah-well, seen-it-before, late-career stoicism but in seasoned tenacity and relentlessness; all of those blowout wins they've been notching lately haven't been downhill coasts but the result of pugnacious intensity.

That's a change from last year's squad, which could at times seem a little too insouciant for its own good, joshing in the clubhouse while dithering at .500 for a dangerously long spell in August before turning on the jets and winning the championship. It's hard to imagine this year's older team wasting time like that—and easy to remind oneself that these largely full-fledged professionals are playing for big-league jobs, jobs (and the accompanying security) many of them have had before and are determined to win back. Montoyo compared Blalock to Adam Kennedy, who came to Durham last year with nothing but the majors on his mind. He was there within a month.

Veteran poise, discrimination and intelligence extend down to the unusually mature Hellickson, too. The 23-year-old was candid but unrattled by his failures last night. "If you can't throw strikes there's really nothing you can do," he said, sagely but firmly. He wasn't merely shrugging it off; you could tell despite his customary low-key affect that it bothered him to perform poorly and put his team in a position to lose. And yet there will be more nights when precisely that happens, and Hellickson knows that. I asked him whether there was anything he wanted to take away from last night's struggles and into his next outing. "There's nothing I want to take from this start," he answered. His demeanor may be unvarying regardless of the outcome, but Hellickson knows good from bad.

Oh, and what did Charlie Montoyo say about Hellickson?

"He battled."

A few notes before I sign off:

* Happy birthday Fernando Perez, who celebrated with three hits and his league-leading ninth steal. (But really, asking for that triple was a base too far.) Given that Perez is the team's resident literati, it makes sense that April 23 is also the birthday of an English playwright and poet named William Shakespeare. Thursday was Carlos Hernandez's birthday, and he partied by tossing seven sterling innings and getting the win, his 50th in the minors. Seems fitting that a Bull should be a Taurus.

* Rashad Eldridge is still in the clubhouse, doing drills and everything he can to stay in rhythm while he waits for his shoulder strain to heal. He called himself day-to-day, and said he can swing the bat without pain.

* Jeff Bennett went down to Extended Spring Training in Florida in order to help his shoulder heal, Montoyo told us; seems doubtful he'll be back soon. Richard De Los Santos, who had performed poorly in three appearances for the Bulls, was sent back down to Montgomery. So far, he has not been replaced on the Durham roster, which is a man short. Any word on a replacement? "Hopefully something will come up pretty soon," Montoyo said, pretending to check his email for an answer. "So I can sleep."

Hey, me too. See you Sunday afternoon at the DBAP.

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Brian Baker took over for an ineffective Jeremy Hellickson and kept the Durham Bulls close until they broke through in the late innings. Justin Ruggiano had the big hits, a two-run homer and a game-winning double.

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