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Friday, May 7, 2010

Durham Bulls down Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees in slugfest: Complications

Posted by on Fri, May 7, 2010 at 7:00 AM

Alvin Colina
  • Durham Bulls
  • Alvin Colina
DBAP/DURHAM—It was already warm and headed for hot when the Durham Bulls' Aneury Rodriguez threw Thursday's first pitch at 11:07 AM. It was the season's second and last "Education Day," but because the Bulls had Wednesday off after an eight-game road trip to Buffalo and Rochester, they looked sprightlier than they did on April 26, when they lost to Gwinnett, 5-4.

Well, the hitters looked sprightlier. The pitchers on both teams were tough to watch for most of the long game (almost three and a half hours), because, to put it bluntly, they stunk. The first words out of Charlie Montoyo's mouth after the Bulls beat the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, 13-8, were: "I'm very happy we won, of course." The next were: "That's a manager's worst nightmare: walks." We've heard a similar lament from him before, and there is simply no getting around the obdurate and ugly fact that walks are terrible in almost every way: timid or inept, they're always numbing, dragging, demoralizing. Bulls' starter Aneury Rodriguez, who struggled for the second straight time after earning International League Pitcher of the Week honors, walked four men in 2 1/3 innings and allowed three runs (he was lucky it wasn't five or six); his successors, the righty soft-tossers Brian Baker and Heath Rollins, walked four more in a combined 3 2/3 and allowed five more runs. Half the guys those three pitchers walked came around to score. The first three innings of the game took an unthinkable hour and a half to play. During a visit to the mound, Montoyo told his position players that they might need to score 10 runs. Well, they only needed nine, which is still a lot to ask, but they gave him 13 anyway; they're just nice like that.

It's that simple, kids: throw strikes. Not only do you burn fewer pitches that way (the Bulls staff threw 196 of them yesterday, against only 146 for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre); you allow fewer baserunners and fewer runs; the fielders behind you stay alert and spry despite the hot white sun above; you feel happy and morally healthy; and your team wins more games (!). The first three Bulls hurlers threw almost as many balls as strikes; the last two, Mike Ekstrom and Winston Abreu, threw two thirds of their pitches for strikes. Neither gave up a run. Abreu's ninth inning was the only 1-2-3 frame recorded by Bulls pitchers on Thursday. It was just hard, and long, to watch. Montoyo was only half-joking when he said that the Bulls would have lost the game if it was decided by time of possession; it seemed the poor fielders spent hours melting in the heat.

But let's not do too much b*tching about the p*tching: despite yesterday's meltdown, the Bulls staff has allowed the third-fewest walks in the league overall, and Thursday was the exception rather than the rule. (By contrast, last year's team allowed the second most bases on balls.) They've allowed the fewest hits despite the most innings pitched, and the team ERA is fourth-best in the league.

Moreover, the Bulls won, again, and improved to a league-leading 18-10—largely because their lineup continues to brutalize opponents. They had 15 more hits yesterday, including long, devastating home runs by Alvin Colina, Jose Lobaton and Hank Blalock. They did major damage against tiring righty Mark Melancon, widely considered the Yankees' top relief prospect (he's been with the big-league club on and off over the last two seasons). Melancon throws hard and has a good curveball, but in his third inning of work, the eighth, he fell apart completely. After what might optimistically be called a seesaw affair through six innings—if it was a seesaw, it was made out of termite-infested wood, the fulcrum was a rusty radiator from a 1975 Chevy C-10, and big fat guys kept sitting on either end and splintering the boards—the teams were tied 8-8. Then the Bulls stampeded for five runs in a thunderous demonstration of might. Jose Lobaton untied the game with a monstrous solo homer way back into the right-center-field bleachers. (When asked if he'd seen Lobaton hit a ball that far before, Montoyo quipped, "In batting practice.") Following the homer, Melancon allowed a walk, a single and a double—the latter was a deep fly ball by Joe Dillon that could have been caught but was dropped just shy of the wall by galloping center fielder Kevin Russo, a natural second baseman who had played, prior to 2010, 315 minor-league games, but only seven in the outfield. (Russo took some flack from Scranton fans last season, according to one correspondent up in the Mineral Belt; unfortunately, although he's a good player, he's exposing himself to more.) Dillon's officially-a-hit chased Melancon, and Blalock greeted Jon Albaladejo with another turbo-boosted rocket that landed very near Lobaton's for a game-over three-run homer. It was suddenly 13-8.

The Bulls final sortie erased the bad vibes and sent everyone home happy, but to leave it at that would be A) not my style and B) to oversimplify some rather complicated doings. Further delving, puzzling and general expatiation—plus injury reports—after the jump.

You keep hearing the Bulls' position players talk this season about never feeling out of any game. It's not every team that can watch its pitchers allow eight runs in the first six innings of a game and still seem well-positioned to win. After yesterday's battle, it was Chris Richard (who was 2-5 with a double, plus a fine diving catch in—left field?) adding to the general feeling of weal about the Bulls' bats. Keep in mind that Durham scored 13 runs yesterday without Dan Johnson, who leads the International League in slugging percentage, homers and OPS; Justin Ruggiano and Angel Chavez, who are fourth and fifth on the team in OPS among regulars; and super-prospect Desmond Jennings, who remains out of the lineup with a nagging shoulder strain. (He was inserted as a ninth-inning defensive replacement, which also happened on the recent road trip.) The Bulls came to bat in the bottom of the first inning already trailing 2-0; they led 5-2 when the inning was over, making Yankees starter Dustin Moseley throw 35 pitches. They have scored 10 or more runs eight times in 28 games this year (they did that 12 times in 144 games last season). Backup catcher Jose Lobaton, in the lineup as designated hitter for the sole reason that there was no one else healthy enough to do it, had the game-winning hit: his first homer of the season in 60 at-bats.

And so there is every reason to be confident despite A) the uneven pitching and B) the current banged-up state of the team. The pitching issues are a reminder of just how much talent was on the staff last year: David Price, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson and Mitch Talbot—throw in temp-assignee Andy Sonnanstine—could make a pretty decent major-league starting rotation. And the injuries are a reminder of just how old the Bulls are—except, wait a minute, it's the old guys who are healthy, and the younger guys who can't keep up. It's rather more complicated than it seems. 23-year-old Desmond Jennings out of the lineup? Angel Chavez dealing with a hamstring issue? Justin Ruggiano nursing a strained biceps? No problem—35-year-old Chris Richard was out in left field at the DBAP for the first time since... 2007 (!), and fourth-year Bull Elliot Johnson took care of shortstop yet again. The imperturbable Joe Dillon (34 years old) keeps holding down second base, with basically no one decent to spell him: light-hitting Omar Luna, recently called up for emergency middle-infield duty, has yet to play. It sort of seems like, I mean, thanks for coming up and all, Omar, but we really need an outfielder instead. As Dan Johnson put it after the game, "At the beginning of the year, you have too many [players], and then a month later you've got not-enough." (Johnson, for his part, is sporting an impressive bruise where he fouled a ball off of his shin; the palette of colors that make up this thing is quite complicated, as is its breadth and shape.)

As for the pitching, it remains a concern. Jeremy Hellickson, who unlike Aneury Rodriguez seems to have recovered from the Pitcher-of-the-Week curse, remains an ace, but the rotation has already had a 40-percent turnover with injuries to Jeff Bennett and Virgil Vasquez—neither of whom is exactly a blue-chip talent. The 22-year-old Rodriguez had no command early yesterday (Montoyo said it was just like Rodriguez's last start), and began quickly to look diffident and shambolic. He strewed runners all over the basepaths—11 of the 18 men he faced reached—and spent a fair amount of time wandering off the mound toward the first base line after missing with his fastball, like a method actor searching for his next line somewhere in the wings. During the first inning, Charlie Montoyo visited the mound. What did he tell Rodriguez? "Believe in yourself; you've got good stuff." But in fact Rodriguez's stuff was poor and he never really devoted himself to improving it.

Compare that with Dustin Moseley's recovery. The 28-year-old Yankee took a beating for the first two-plus innings, allowing 10 of the first 15 batters he faced to reach base, six runs crossing the plate. But then he got a little good luck—with two men in scoring position, a hot liner by Alvin Colina went right to first baseman David Winfree, and then poor baserunning cost the Bulls a serious rally. That seemed to be the wrinkle Moseley needed: he retired the last nine men he faced on 31 pitches, leaving with a tie game. I've always been skeptical of the old "he kept his team in the game" line, but that's what Moseley did. He deserves credit for saving (in theory) the bullpen.

By contrast, Rodriguez spent most of his afternoon (which was tiresomely long despite its abbreviated stat line) looking frustrated, like a kid repeatedly clanking wrong notes in a piano lesson. It was a jejune performance, further dehydrated by bad luck. A run scored in the second inning after Rodriguez almost stabbed a chopper over his head but instead deflected what would have been a double-play ball into an infield single; then Kevin Russo squeaked a 42-hopper past Hank Blalock for a spineless single; then, after a foul-out, Eduardo Nunez hit a liner just past Elliot Johnson's dive at shortstop. That scored a run, but Rodriguez rebounded to get the next two hitters out and avoid further damage.

He couldn't maintain it, though. Clearly out of sync and out of sorts in the third inning, already well over 60 pitches, Rodriguez was just laying them in there at 86 or 87 mph and, it seemed, merely hoping for the best. He walked the 7-8-9 hitters on just 14 pitches, and although home plate Umpire David Rackley's strike zone was awfully small—a couple of called balls uncomfortably resembled strikes, to me—the fact is that you don't allow four walks in 2 1/3 innings without being your own prime culpable. With the bases loaded and one out, Montoyo lifted Rodriguez, who hung his head and loped off to the showers.

Rodriguez is still very young and, to my eyes, needs to do more work on his marionette mechanics: there's a lot of extraneous (complicated?) elbow and shoulder business going on at the back of his delivery. Doubtless his coaches know that—or I'm dead wrong and disregard this paragraph—and at his age there is plenty of time to refine his approach. He has good natural stuff with lots of movement on it—and let's not forget that he threw 14 scoreless innings to begin his Triple-A career—although I think he's ultimately headed for someone's bullpen.

Speaking of someone's bullpen, after Rodriguez was done, Montoyo gave us the jazz duo of Baker and Rollins. The two soft-throwing right-handers looked about the same out there and had almost identical collapses. Part of the problem facing Montoyo in games where he has to use both of them—especially when he deploys them consecutively—is that they aren't very distinguishable in terms of raw stuff; they're session men with familiar tones; and so opposing lineups don't get a new look if you don't stick someone between them—an electric guitarist, perhaps, between two horn players.

Brian Baker, to his great credit, bailed Rodriguez out of his bases-loaded mess in the third. He came on with the sacks full and one out, struck out Kevin Russo, and got Reegie Corona to hit into a fielder's choice. He worked around a leadoff single and a wild pitch in the fourth inning, but in the fifth Baker fell out of the window. With one out, he walked the eighth- and ninth-place hitters, Robby Hammock and Matt Cusick. (This is egregious: Hammock and Cusick walked in 7 of their 10 plate appearances yesterday; each averages about one walk every nine or 10 at-bats.) Russo flied out to very deep center field (whew) and, when Baker got two strikes on Corona, he seemed on the verge of escaping the threat. On a 1-2 pitch, he went upstairs with a fastball, which seemed a setup pitch, intentionally up out of the strike zone. A changeup or something else low and away seemed in order next; but Baker tried his meh fastball again and Corona smacked a single to left. Eduardo Nunez doubled, and the Bulls' 6-3 lead was no more. 6-6.

In the sixth, Heath Rollins walked—who else?—Hammock and Cusick to load the bases with two outs, even though he had had two strikes on Cusick and was, just like Baker an inning earlier, a strike away from getting out of the inning with out a run scoring. (Rollins was visibly upset with Rackley's ball-four call to Cusick.) Russo followed with a two-run single. 8-6 Yankees.

But the Bulls immediately broke back, notching two runs in the last of the sixth on Colina's homer in the general vicinity of the Tobacco Road Cafe office window and a mature, opposite-field, RBI single by Dillon, who, rather than try to overmatch hard-throwing Mark Melancon, merely poked a fastball into right. Mike Ekstrom, recently down from Tampa Bay (he was essentially swapped out for Joaquin Benoit, who has better fuel injection), restored order from the mound, and two innings later the Bulls went Ape.

Speaking of ape, perhaps the biggest news in this complicated game was the return of King Kong himself, beloved ex-Bull Jon Weber. He wasted no time getting back to his old ways, hitting the third pitch he saw over Hank Blalock's head for an opposite-field double to the Blue Monster. He scored what was briefly the go-ahead run in the sixth after he singled to center, then took advantage of Fernando Perez's dropsies with the ball out there and zipped to second to get into scoring position. He also struck out looking in the seventh and, true to form, muttered discursively to Rackley as he trudged out toward right field. He was quickly out of the clubhouse and taunting socializing with former teammates before I could catch up with him, but I'll try to run him down on Sunday when I return to the DBAP. The voluble and slightly hammy Weber ought to be game for some good banter.

A few notes before I sign off:

* Justin Ruggiano did something un-fun to his biceps during an at-bat on the recent road trip, and he was placed on the 7-day disabled list retroactive to May 2. He wasn't in the clubhouse yesterday, so I don't have further details. For now, the Bulls are once again playing with a 23-man roster. Carlos Hernandez, wearin' the Hudson Valley sweatshirt at the moment, will have to be added back onto the roster before his scheduled start on Saturday, so I'd be surprised if there's another move made in the mean time.

* Desmond Jennings sounded perfectly upbeat about his mysterious shoulder strain (it's his non-throwing arm that's hurt), and expects to be back soon. One has continued questions about his ability to stay healthy. But again, he's still young, like Rodriguez.

* On a potentially more serious note, Yankees' reliever John Van Benschoten left after facing just four batters in the sixth inning (he allowed Colina's homer). It was the first time I can recall watching a pitcher limping so badly that he had to be apache'd off the field by a coach and trainer. I couldn't find any news later of the injury, but it looked like it could be a bad one. Van Benschoten was the No. 1 draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2001—as a hitter. He was converted to pitcher, but major injuries to his shoulder set his career back; you can't help wondering how many surgeries and rehabs a player wants to deal with before deciding it's too much.

* Line of the day went to Chris Richard. I asked him how he liked playing the DBAP's left field, what with the meddling Blue Monster playing havoc with a rusty outfielder's tactics and spraying caroms all over the field. Was it hard? Nope. The Monster, and the limited real estate it allows out there, "makes it easier on guys who don't have great arms and aren't that fast," Richard deadpanned.

* Richard De Los Santos, who actually played for Hudson Valley last year (unlike his teammates, for whom HV is a state of mind only), has looked suddenly like the real deal lately, He starts Friday against the Yankees' extremely large Romulo Sanchez. Game time is 7:05 PM.

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