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Monday, April 26, 2010

Durham Bulls pound Gwinnett Braves: Not kidding

Posted by on Mon, Apr 26, 2010 at 7:00 AM

Aneury Rodriguez
  • Aneury Rodriguez
DBAP/DURHAM—"The Bulls are not kidding around right now," a dad explained to his very young son during the top of the seventh inning of Durham's 9-1 trouncing of the Gwinnett Braves. Braves' designated hitter Barbaro Canizares had just hit a ball to rather deep right field, where Justin Ruggiano hauled it in without much trouble. Canizares is a pretty familiar face to Bulls' pitchers over the last year-plus; he had 70 at-bats against Durham in 2009 (22 hits).

Speaking of familiar, how about Justin Ruggiano vis a vis Braves' starter Todd Redmond? The Roodge had a pair of homers off Redmond in the same game last May 9, and added a couple of doubles off the Braves' pitcher in two other games against him. So it was no surprise at all last night when Ruggiano launched a high third-inning pop fly into the blowing-hard-to-left wind, and the current carried the ball over the Blue Monster and onto the concourse for a home run. (A hawk visited the airspace over the DBAP in the third inning and then again in the sixth or seventh; it just floated on the jetstream, exampling the wind's force and vector; all you had to do was hit one as the hawk flies and you had a chance for extra bases.)

Sometimes you just see a certain pitcher well. It has to be said, in the ongoing case of Justin Ruggiano v. Todd Redmond (and His Own Past), that he had manufactured another Roodge ca. 2010 at-bat in his first appearance versus Redmond. He fell behind 1-2, fouled off an assortment of curveballs and fastballs, and then grounded out to second base on Redmond's ninth pitch. The result may not have been ideal, but it a) moved the runners over and b) was another convincing piece of evidence in Ruggiano's appeal to the high baseball court. The windblown homer two innings later—on the first pitch he saw from Redmond—was a sort of affirmation of Ruggiano's new approach at the plate. He has changed his walk-up music to a mellow reggae-ish groove called "The Struggla," which is indicative of his newfound respect for the labor and placidity and rhythm necessary to good hitting. Last year it was (and in late innings still is) the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage."

What the 2009 season proved was that Ruggiano was his own saboteur, getting in his head or maintaining a blind spot on pitches low and away. But the pleasant irony of 2010 so far is that Ruggiano is neither the Saboteur nor the Struggla. The homer extended his hitting streak to 11 games, and it extended the Bulls' lead to 5-0. Joe Dillon followed one out later with another homer to left—the line drive needed no help from the wind, hit the Bull and won him a steak from the Tobacco Cafe, or whatever the skyward thing behind the concourse is called; it hasn't opened yet, so I can only assume that they're dry-aging Dillon's reward-to-be in anticipation of his (and their) arrival.

Those two third-inning taters by Ruggiano and Dillon confirmed the argument that the Bulls made in the first inning off of Redmond, when they tagged him for four runs, the key hit a two-run homer by Chris Richard, who went down and castigated a lame curveball. This game was effectively over before it really began. Ways in which the Bulls aren't kidding around after the jump.

Aneury Rodriguez looks a little like a younger Winston Abreu: tall and lanky, a shock of curly black hair atop a bright, intelligent face. He gave up a double to the game's first batter, Matt Young, who banged a 3-1 fastball for an opposite-field double off of the Blue Monster. Gregor Blanco sacrificed Young to third, but then Baby A-Rod (he's only 22) went to his breaking pitch and got Braves' super-prospect Freddie Freeman to strike out. He added a groundout from Canizares and the inning was over.

Guess how many more hits Rodriguez allowed over his seven innings of work? If you guessed zero, come get a hug. Rodriguez appeared to struggle with his control early—he needed 39 pitches (only 21 strikes) and three three-ball counts, including a walk, to get through the first two innings. But then, he told us after the game (with help from Carlos Hernandez, who translated when my Spanish was insufficient), he corrected a flaw in his mechanics—shoulder flying open too early, he was told by catcher Alvin Colina (who went 3-3 with a monstrous homer, a wind-aided double, and a walk)—and from the third through the seventh he was absolutely dominant. Rodriguez retired 16 of his final 17 hitters, and only one hit a ball well.

Rodriguez doesn't throw hard—he touched 92 with one pitch, but his fastball generally sits around 89 mph. His curveball is only average right now, but he has a good slider and an effective changeup—and most importantly, that fastball has tremendous movement and life. There's one version that swerves like a cutter, another that seems to rise; the upshot is that Rodriguez seldom threw two consecutive pitches to the same spot, at the same velocity, and he had the Braves flummoxed throughout the night. His throwing motion is kind of all-over-the-place, a lot of limbs in a lot of directions, and I couldn't help wondering if his delivery was keeping the Braves from picking up his pitches. They swung often, and even though Rodriguez recorded only four strikeouts, at one point he needed only 29 pitches to dispatch three innings. He earned his second win in as many starts in Triple-A, and hasn't allowed a run in his 14 innings. One wishes the injured Jeff Bennett well, but at present Rodriguez is the Rhyne Hughes of the 2010 Bulls: given a chance brought on by injury, he seems determined to make it last. (For his part, Hughes was just called up to Baltimore for his first-ever major-league action; he went 2-4 in his inaugural game, and drove in the winning run in the next.)

Meanwhile, his teammates made it easy for Rodriguez to just rear back and pitch. It was 4-0 before two were out in the first inning, and this lineup looks murderous right now, no matter who Charlie Montoyo pencils into it. The game took just 2:17 to play despite Durham's nine-run onslaught. "Every day's somebody different," Montoyo said afterward. Last night it was Alvin Colina and Joe Dillon, who collaborated to go 7-7 with two homers, two doubles and five RBI (and Rodriguez threw every pitch Colina called for, the young righty said later). The Bulls are hitting with mercenary, punishing efficiency; they have that unrelenting ruthlessness (Ruthianness?) that puts opponents in an immediate and deep hole.

The Bulls may have seen Redmond four times last season, and hit him well, but this is a different team, and Redmond came into the game with superb numbers. No matter: the Bulls gouged him quickly and deeply, rebounding quickly and decisively from Saturday's tough 8-7 loss. This is a team that you just don't want to contend with right now. With four more homers on Sunday, they lead the league in just about every major hitting category, including homers, doubles, walks, on-base percentage, batting average, slugging and (probably) tattoos. They are averaging—averaging!—6.6 runs per game. That's over a run more than second-place Columbus.

Oh, and the pitching staff is second in the league in ERA, first in WHIP. It's not for nothing that the the Bulls are a league-best 14-4. (Their parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays, have the league's—indeed, the majors'—best record at 14-5, and like the Bulls lead everyone in runs scored. Their run differential is +50; the next-best team is +31. Everybody Loves Ray Monde.) You never want to be cocky—and one thing you learn about Triple-A is that rosters and fortunes can change swiftly and radically—but this team, if it happens to stay more or less the same, ought to be playing in mid-September again.

A few notes:

* One quirk of yesterday's game: Matt Young's leadoff double in the first inning was Gwinnett's only hit through seven innings. Dale Thayer spelled Rodriguez in the eighth. He didn't look good, missing with his fastball and allowing two long outs to the wall in the inning to the Braves' eighth- and ninth-place hitters. Nonetheless, the Braves still had only one hit; so naturally it was the diminutive Young who, leading off the top of the ninth, banged his second double of the game off the Blue Monster. He came around to score on a pair of groundouts, and so Gwinnett's total hit production for the day was Young's two doubles. (Plus: Adios, shutout.) Thayer's overall numbers look decent, but so far he hasn't been the automatic late-inning fireman he was for most of last season. He has allowed five walks in 10 innings.

Virgil Vasquez was placed on the 7-day disabled list, but he'll be out a while. Vasquez was riding his scooter to the park on Friday—he lives near the DBAP—and was in a traffic accident. Both of his wrists are fractured. Fortunately, his throwing hand took less of the impact. He will fly to Florida on Monday for diagnosis and rehab, and isn't expected back for at least three weeks. (Here's betting it's much longer than that.) Vasquez was upbeat and cool-headed in the clubhouse, but his departure calls into action—tomorrow!—Heath Rollins, who hasn't started a game since August 3, 2009 for the Montgomery Biscuits (he lost to the Mississippi Braves, against a lineup that included four hitters he's likely to see on Monday). Rollins will probably go three or four innings, followed by Richard De Los Santos, an emergency reinstatement to the roster with Vasquez's departure; De Los Santos had been demoted Montgomery just days ago after a poor April as a Bull, but someone has to speak for those innings on Monday. Brian Baker, who was pleasant and candid in the clubhouse after the game, will also be available. Aneury Rodriguez's start was thus not only effective but bullpen-saving. Montoyo said that, in addition to Joaquin Benoit, Winston Abreu would also be available.

Desmond Jennings hasn't started a game since Thursday. He is nursing a shoulder ouchie, according to Charlie Montoyo. Jennings was out of the clubhouse quickly after Sunday's game, so there was no time to ask him what happened. He's still young—and awesome—but one thing you can't help noticing about Jennings is that he seems to be easily and frequently hurt. Say whatever you want about bad luck, about the physical grind of baseball; the fact is that there is a skill, a talent for staying healthy, and Jennings is still mastering it. Elliot Johnson, who has played in every single Bulls game this season, started in left field. He may have to do it again for a while until Jennings or Rashad Eldridge, who is days away from returning from his own shoulder problems, returns.

Today's game time is 11:05 AM: it's Education Day, which means lots of screaming kids in identical uniforms and at least one game story afterward that goes "[Team A] Schools [Team B] on Education Day." The good news: the kids are pretty much gone by the sixth inning; the super-early game time means you can actually go to the DBAP, zip back to work and still get something done by 5:00; and it's gonna be 78 and sunny. I'll be there. You should be too.

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