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Monday, April 26, 2010

Durham Bulls Drop Homestand Finale to Gwinnett Braves: Earlyburly

Posted by on Mon, Apr 26, 2010 at 5:00 PM

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DBAP/DURHAM—This morning I finished my breakfast and went straight to the DBAP. It's pretty disorienting to be still digesting your oatmeal at game time, when you're still groggy from the previous night's lucubrations. I had wagered that none of the ballplayers would admit to hating an 11:00 AM first pitch, even though that's when they're usually waking up, because they generally try to show reporters their chipper game-faces whenever possible; but Bulls' designated hitter Dan Johnson was having nothing to do with the party line. How did did he like playing ball right after Showcase Showdown? "Not at all," he said.

(Is TPIR still on the air? I don't have a TV. Until yesterday, I thought that the musical Wicked, currently playing right behind the DBAP at the DPAC, was an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury novel.)

He must not hate it that much; or perhaps it just took him a while to wake up. Johnson hit his league-leading eighth home run in the eighth inning. The two-run shot, an opposite-field job that barely cleared the Blue Monster (Johnson's getting good at parking them on the concourse up there), closed the Gwinnett Braves' margin over Durham to just a single run; but Gwinnett's 21-year-old closer, Craig Kimbrel, made sure that was where it stayed, and the Braves earned a series split with the Bulls, winning 4-3.

Johnson was refreshingly candid throughout his postgame interview, a pleasant change of pace from the usual game of connect-the-cliches most athletes play—but more on that later. The Bulls fell behind 4-0 by the fourth inning this afternoon morning. Emergency starter Heath Rollins had a sluggish four-inning stint, running into some deep counts and getting victimized for a two-run homer by Gwinnett's Freddie Freeman. Freeman had been fairly quiet for most of the series, and he was bound to break through; Rollins' 86-mph fastball was just the ticket. The Bulls got a run back in the fifth inning, and when Johnson's eighth-inning homer cleared the wall, it was a surprise to see that they were suddenly within a run of the Braves, 4-3—they had seemed well out of it for most of the game—and that they had collected 10 hits. Joe Dillon followed Johnson's homer with a single, but Chris Richard, who had already hit two singles, rapped into a 3-6-3 double play, and then Kimbrel retired four straight Bulls to close it out. (Montoyo was quick to praise Kimbrel and Braves' reliever Mike Dunn, who combined to keep the Bulls scoreless in their 3 2/3 combined innings.) The Braves ended a 12-game road trip 6-6.

The Bulls, meanwhile, stranded nine men on base, all nine through the first six innings; Braves pitchers recorded only two 1-2-3 frames. Other than Johnson's homer, the rest of the Bulls 11 hits were singles, and as Johnson pointed out, you've got to string more hits together when they aren't extra-base knocks. The Bulls also grounded into three double plays. It seems right now that this team lives and dies by the long ball, and there is frankly nothing at all wrong with that. Yes, the Bulls split this series with Gwinnett, but the team is playing almost .750 ball overall. "It's kinda weird losing a game," Johnson said. Well, his team isn't really used to it. They head up to chilly Buffalo and Rochester for eight games, and then come home to host the Jon Weber-led Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees on May 6. (There is a memorial "Weber" name plate above one of the lockers in the Bulls' clubhouse.) Guess what time that game starts? 11:00 AM.

Some terribly important notes follow:

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the Bulls' failure to complete their comeback was that the lineup wasted a superb relief effort by Richard De Los Santos. The young right-hander had been slated for a demotion to Montgomery after struggling badly in his first two appearances early on for Durham, but when Virgil Vasquez went on the disabled list with two fractured wrists following his scooter accident, De Los Santos had to head back to Durham. Originally, it seemed as if he would start today's game, but Rollins got the nod instead. That was understandable, given their track records, but the results overturned expectations: Rollins was a letdown, and De Los Santos shined in relief. He went five innings, throwing just 56 pitches. Only one man reached base. He hit Mitch Jones with a pitch that got away from him leading off the sixth, but Jones was promptly thrown out stealing, so De Los Santos wound up facing the minimum. He struck out just one batter, but he had good sink on his fastball and recorded nine of his 15 outs on the ground. He pitched his a** off—almost literally: Brent Clevlen's liner in the ninth caromed off De Los Santos's backside and right to shortstop Angel Chavez, who threw Clevlen out at first. (So De Los Santos presumably has a commemorative tattoo of his five-inning relief no-hitter.) It's too bad he wasn't rewarded with a win for the job he did—plus, as Charlie Montoyo noted after the game, he kept the entire bullpen rested.

Speaking of Angel Chavez, what to make of him? He rarely seems to exert much energy (i.e., hustle), and his throws to first base look kind of lollipop-ish, like he's just lobbing it over there; but he also made every play today, including some fine grabs on grounders to his left and right. Perhaps he's a deceptively airtight infielder; we'll see as the season goes on. He swings a decent bat, too; he's a vast improvement over the guy he basically replaced, Ray Olmedo. (Olmedo was signed by the Texas Rangers over the winter and then traded to Milwaukee just before the season started; the Brewers assigned him to Nashville in the Class AAA Pacific Coast League—wow, I guess the country really has moved to the left!)

The Braves' Barbaro Canizares played more lazily in this series than anyone else I've seen in a long while. He swung half-heartedly at the first pitch in his first two at-bats today, popping up to right field each time and loafing down towards first base. In the fifth inning, he got ahead of De Los Santos 2-0, then chopped out to the pitcher. He runs to first base like he has a belly full of beef stroganoff and pilsner. I don't know if he's petulant at having had to cede first base to hyped prospect Freddie Freeman (Canizares is now a full-time DH), or if he's secretly hurt or something, but someone needs to wake him up, and not just because the game started early today.

Aneury Rodriguez was named International League Pitcher of the Week in honor of his two stellar starts for the Bulls, his first two in Triple-A. He went seven innings each time and has yet to allow a run. Teammate Jeremy Hellickson won it the week before that. Here's hoping Carlos Hernandez takes the next one.

click to enlarge Dan Johnson hit his league-leading 8th homer for the Bulls today.
  • Dan Johnson hit his league-leading 8th homer for the Bulls today.

Dan Johnson spoke very candidly about his time in Japan last year. Why did he go there? "Money." What did he think of it? "It was terrible. I didn't like it at all." Johnson explained that, although he enjoyed it culturally (he took his family with him), he found the actual playing of baseball a drag. As an American, he was subject to what he called a "huge" strike zone—he struck out 78 times in 325 at-bats, a much higher rate than usual for the normally selective Johnson. "I felt completely cheated... They made it as unfair as possible." He played for Yokohama, a bad team that finished last in the league, and said that they benched him to keep him from reaching incentive bonuses and finally sent him back to the US two weeks before the season ended: they wanted to make sure that a Japanese player would lead the team in home runs, apparently. Johnson's contract with Yokohama included a club option for a second year, but the team tried to re-negotiate the terms and Johnson opted to return to the US. Although he had been with Tampa (and Durham) just before he left for Japan—he hit a memorable homer in the Rays' September 2008 surge to the pennant—Johnson said that the Rays weren't the first team to come calling. "There were a couple of other teams that I was about to sign with, and then the Rays came." Johnson acknowledged that the situation wasn't ideal—there's really no room for him on the big-league roster unless a player (or two) gets hurt—but "the thing is," he said, "if you do get a chance with this team, you've got a chance to do something special."

It says a great deal about the current state of the Rays that Johnson would say that about the franchise: After winning the pennant two years ago and then finishing a disappointing third in 2009, hopes are very, very high. It's amazing how the franchise has turned around in such a short time. The 2010 Rays and Bulls have league-best records at their respective levels. Both teams are 14-5. It is, to be sure, an exciting time to follow along. The next installment features Jeremy Hellickson, looking to rebound from his worst start as a Bull, starting for Durham tomorrow in Buffalo. I'll see you back at the DBAP on Thursday, May 6, right after breakfast.

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The Durham Bulls came up short against the Gwinnett Braves in the homestand finale.

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