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Monday, May 10, 2010

Durham Bulls thumped by Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees: More questions than answers

Posted by on Mon, May 10, 2010 at 12:33 AM

Jeremy Hellickson
  • Durham Bulls
  • Jeremy Hellickson
DBAP/DURHAM—The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees beat the Durham Bulls last night, 9-3, in a game that had me searching for answers in a deep sort of way that I was unaccustomed to doing. What was wrong with Jeremy Hellickson, who took his first loss of the season? Why has the league's most potent offense suddenly gone cold again? Did I just watch Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo come to the mound in the middle of an inning and lift an ineffective Winston Abreu? Is this currently unconvincing team actually leading its division by four games, with the International League's second-best record? (Yes to both.) Did the Bulls' parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays, really suffer the indignity of being on the wrong end of a perfect game—for the second time in less than a year? (Against that obnoxious, self-righteous motor-mouthed guy who wouldn't shut up about about A-Rod running across the mound a couple of weeks ago?) There have been only 19 perfect games in the history of major-league baseball; two have been against Tampa since last July; think of the odds. Why did I have to go into the visitors' clubhouse to interview Jon Weber? And can it really be true that in less than 24 hours I will be watching the Bulls play baseball at the old Durham Athletic Park, where as a kid I watched them play literally hundreds of games, but where i haven't been since the early 1990s? In short, I found myself interrogating things I've always been able to take for granted.

Before I get into all that, though, a reminder about why following the Bulls and their opponents is so much fun. I got home around the middle of the Boston Red Sox' blowout of the New York Yankees, which was on ESPN. A terrible A. J. Burnett was lifted and replaced with Romulo Sanchez, who was in a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre uniform this weekend at the DBAP, from where he was called up to the big leagues. Sanchez pitched briefly in the majors in 2007 and 2008. The graphic that accompanied his warmup tosses identified him as "Ronulo" Sanchez, and it was later amended to "Romula." After he struck out David Ortiz to end the sixth inning, Sanchez crossed himself and pointed to the sky in thanks to God. I know he's been out of the majors since 2008, but someone needs to tell Sanchez that one no longer needs divine intervention to fan David Ortiz.

Oh, and then Kevin Russo, who was just here, came in during garbage time to give the rest of the night off to the Yankees' regular third baseman, a guy named Rodriguez.

Anyway, more questions, perhaps, than answers, follow.

As I was walking to the ballpark in the late afternoon, I was thinking that conditions were favorable for Jeremy Hellickson to do something special. For one thing, the weather had abruptly cooled off the night before. When I was at the ballpark on Thursday afternoon, it was around 90 degrees under a high bright sun; on Sunday at 5:00 PM, the temperature was dropping out of the 60s toward the upper 40s, and the grandstand shadow had already advanced to just behind home plate. I thought that Hellickson, who is from Iowa, might thrive in the cooler, lighter air (even though it can get quite hot in Hawkeye country), especially with the help of the shadow, which is especially tough on hitters who are standing in the shade while trying to pick up a ball as it's released from the hand of a pitcher in still-bright daylight.

I thought, too, that Hellickson might have an additional edge because the injury-bitten New York Yankees had called up Scranton leadoff hitter Kevin Russo and replaced him, basically, with freshly-demoted Greg Golson, who had never faced Hellickson. Moreover, the 2010 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre team doesn't seem as scary as last year's model. Shelley Duncan, Austin Jackson and John Rodriguez are all gone, and Golson, Jon Weber and David Winfree aren't quite the menace that that trio was—especially given that Weber, who was affable and upbeat in the Yankees clubhouse, as always, has gotten off to a dismal start this season after a captivatingly great spring training.

Not only that, but Hellickson's father was in town for the game—I had seen him on Saturday, walking down Chapel Hill Street in a Rays jersey—and last time Hellickson père was here, his son turned in perhaps the best start of his career so far.

But it was clear early that Hellickson didn't have his best stuff. He wasn't completely out of sorts, as he was in his previous start at the DBAP, but his fastball didn't have that eye-opening precision (although he did seem to be throwing it a bit harder) that has established him as the Rays' No. 1 pitching prospect. Hellickson threw first-pitch strikes to only about half the batters he faced. He had only one 1-2-3 inning. His curveball, which accounted for about a fifth of his pitches, was still unreliable. Hellickson produced ten swings-and-misses with his 86 pitches, but he never seemed to have the Yankees really mastered. Only one man in the lineup, Eduardo Nunez, failed to reach base against him—a sign that a pitcher is struggling with both control and command. Hellickson recorded only three strikeouts in five-plus innings of inefficient work.

And yet, for all that, he departed in the sixth inning having allowed only two runs, and the Bulls were tied with the Yankees. But he left a mess for reliever Mike Ekstrom—the bases loaded and no one out—and flung a towel against the dugout wall in disgust after Montoyo replaced him. We will resume our game report below after an investigation into Hellickson's outing, that of his counterpart Zach McAllister, and a couple of related items.

***

Something seemed to have taken the wind out of the usually steady and relentless Silent Cyclone along about the fifth inning, when he gave up three hits and a run. He walked the leadoff man, Juan Miranda, in the sixth, after having fanned Miranda twice earlier with changeups and curves (Hellickson must have come in with an offspeed-pitch plan versus Miranda, who homered off of him last season); then Winfree and Weber singled, and Hellickson walked another batter, Chad Huffman.

After the game, Scranton manager Dave Miley told us, in between the usual cautious bromides carefully offered to unfamiliar reporters, that his hitting coach, Butch Wynegar, had developed a specific game plan for facing Hellickson. He declined to elaborate on what exactly that plan was and politely referred us to Wynegar, who looked so uneager to answer questions (i.e. neither moved from his chair nor gave any sign that he was aware we were there) that it was obvious that what we were really being referred to was the door.

In hindsight, thinking back over Hellickson's night, it seems like the plan was not to attack Hellickson but simply to work with what he gave the Yankees' hitters. Few balls were hit very hard off of him; the Yankees seldom even seemed to be swinging very hard, and when they did, they usually missed. There were some grounders through the infield and a couple of opposite-field liners. Only once, if memory serves, did an outfielder have move back to catch a ball, on David Winfree's drive to deep center field in the second inning. I'm guessing that Wynegar's idea was for his hitters to let the momentum of Hellickson's pitches do the work. For all of his strikeouts (a little over one per inning overall at the Class AAA level), Hellickson actually isn't afraid to pitch to a fair amount of contact. With his ERA now up to 3.38—still good, but not dominant—is it possible that the league is figuring out how make that contact count? And why, after an easy ten-pitch, two-strikeout fourth inning in which Hellickson seemed to be finally slotting into the familiar and dangerous groove that makes him hypnotically untouchable, did he suddenly start to come apart in the fifth? Seven of the last 10 hitters he faced reached base via hit or walk. And does Hellickson feel a bit uncomfortable pitching at the DBAP? He has been better on the road since his callup to Durham last season.

Well, that's a lot of questions, and Hellickson wasn't around after the game to answer them. His velocity is still good—in fact, he seemed to be throwing a little harder last night than he did against Gwinnett a couple of weeks ago—and, in fairness, he's still working on that curveball. It should also be said that in some way last night's outing was better than the linescore shows: few hard-hit balls, three inherited runners allowed to score by his successor, Ekstrom. It might be useful to compare him developmentally to Wade Davis, another unusually stoic young right-hander who wasn't consistent last season even as it was clear that he was on his way to Tampa posthaste. No matter who is pitching and hitting, it's worth reminding oneself at all times that the minors are about development. If you're here, no matter if you're 23 or 33, it's because you're still growing, still evolving. (Reminder of that universal truth: I saw my mom yesterday on Mother's Day. She's still raising me, in ways different from but no less important than ways she did when I was a kid.) Hellickson is an intelligent, cagey pitcher; he'll take something away from this loss, you have to think, and get better and stronger.

It was instructive to compare Hellickson's performance with that of his counterpart, Zach McAllister. McAllister is even younger than Hellickson (he turned 22 in December), and more of a finesse pitcher. He relies on a sinker, which can be a fickle pitch. He had trouble getting it to sink the fourth inning and the Bulls took a 2-0 lead before an out was recorded. After Chris Richard's two-run single to right (a groundball, it should be noted for a sinkerballer), Scranton pitching coach Scott Aldred visited the mound. Whatever mothering he did out there worked, and Angel Chavez, the Bulls' next batter, helped by swinging at the first pitch McAllister threw him after the conference: Chavez flied out to center field. Jose Lobaton struck out and Rashad Eldridge hit a high chopper back over the mound that the allegedly (but definitely not) 6-foot-6 McAllister speared with a leap and threw to first to retire Eldridge and end the inning. In the fifth, Fernando Perez hit a sinking opposite-field liner that David Winfree approached poorly and allowed to turn into a triple. McAllister stranded Perez on third (a bit more on Perez's triple later). In the seventh, Lobaton led off with a double off the Blue Monster, but McAllister struck out two of the next three batters he faced and Lobaton never moved from second base. Overall, it was an unusually mature performance from a very young pitcher.

We asked Dave Miley what had been said to McAllister when Aldred went to the mound in the troublesome fourth inning. Miley told us we'd have to ask Aldred, just as he passed the buck to Wynegar when asked about his team's hitting. Aldred didn't even look up from his laptop at that suggestion. I completely understand the general suspicion under which road reporters are probably held (who are these guys? do they know anything at all about baseball? if I reveal strategy to them, will it come back to bite me later? how soon can I get out of this tiny clubhouse? etc.); but I couldn't help chuckling later at how doggedly Miley, despite his surface approachability and game-faced media-bite willingness, deflected questions and managed to say basically nothing at all. He was asked about the rotation juggle that moved McAllister's start up a day and scheduled pitcher Ivan Nova back, but would only say that he had no comment and "Nova's okay."

We subsequently asked McAllister what Aldred had said to him, and it apparently was nothing more than "keep the ball down." It made me think of the Rube Bressler chapter in the book The Glory of Their Times:

Those conferences on the mound out there really get me.The pitcher knows he's in a jam. What can they say to him? They just remind him of it, that's all. Having pitched and played first base both, I know what they do. The catcher and the infielders run over to you and pick up your rosin bag, like they never saw one in their life before, and all they say is, "Bear down, buddy, you'll get out of this. Just bear down and work hard. You can do it." Then they give you a quick pat on the rear end and run back as far as they can get out of the line of fire.

Now just what do you learn from that? You already had a vague feeling that things weren't going just right. To tell the truth, you knew darned well that you were in a heck of a jam. And you've been bearing down, and you've been working hard. All it does is make you even more worried than you already were, which was plenty.

(I love how many players back in the day seemed to be named Rube, Babe and Hoss. I also love the above speech; seems to apply to life in general, frankly.)

***

So Hellickson leaves a 2-2 tie with the bases loaded and no one out, and Mike Ekstrom comes on and goes single (on a two-strike pitch), bases-loaded walk, single (on another two-strike pitch), and just like that it's 6-2 Scranton. He gets out of the inning after that, but in order to do it he needs catcher Jose Lobaton to pick off a man at second base and throw out another one attempting to steal it. In the seventh Juan Miranda takes Ekstrom deep to center field, but Desmond Jennings runs it down for an out, and Winfree singles for the second time in as many innings. "He just didn't have it today," Montoyo offered. Ya think?

In the bottom of the eighth, Hank Blalock punishes reliever Royce Ring (who was the losing pitcher for Memphis in the Bulls' Triple-A Championship victory last season) with a Visigoth homer (off of a lefty, it should be noted: Blalock has historically struggled against southpaws) way out into the right-centerfield bleachers to make it 6-3; and with two outs Ring walks Chris Richard after getting squeezed on a potential strike-three one pitch before; he directs a few words of disagreement toward home plate umpire David Rackley on his way to the dugout.

On comes Mark Melancon, whom the Bulls tore apart on Thursday. But Melancon strikes out Angel Chavez. That's pretty much the ballgame.

Except for this unsettling postscript: In the top of the ninth, after working a painless 1-2-3 eighth, Winston Abreu strikes out Greg Golson (who is in many ways just like the 2009 Yankee he replaced, the traded-to-Detroit Austin Jackson, only worse). But then, in rhyme with Hellickson's sudden meltdown a few innings before, Abreu has his own implosion. He is apparently abducted, before our very eyes but wthout our noticing, by aliens, and replaced with a Winston Abreu clone who can't throw his slider for strikes and walks uber-pest Reegie [sic] Corona. He gets Eduardo Nunez to chop to short for the second out, but now nearing 30 pitches he throws a first-pitch fastball to Juan Miranda, who rips it up the middle for a single; then, two pitches later, David Winfree creams another fastball to straightaway center for a three-run homer. Charlie Montoyo does something he will tell us later he's never done before: he takes Winston Abreu out of a game in the middle of an inning. (That is actually not true: Montoyo removed Abreu in the decisive game of last year's International League Governor's Cup Championship Series against... Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. In that game, of course, it was because Abreu had a blister.) All that remains is for the kids to run the bases, just like the Yankees did. Scranton/Wilkes-barre had 19 baserunners.

But here is the thing about Abreu's removal: Montoyo could lift him only because he had another pitcher, Brian Baker, warming in the bullpen. Which is to say that Montoyo had prepared for trouble, something he never would have done last season with Abreu on the mound. Since his off-season surgery for an aneurysm, Abreu is still regaining his strength and his stamina. This was the second time this year that Montoyo has extended Abreu into a second inning of work—he did it against Rochester last week in an extra-inning game—and each time Abreu has tired in that second inning (he lost the Rochester game in the 11th).

In other words, Abreu isn't fully recovered yet. Right now, given Hellilckson's recent inconsistency, the Bulls don't quite have a pitcher you feel completely comfortable with on the mound. We'll see how that plays out going forward.

***

Fifteen or so minutes after the game ended, the Bulls' clubhouse was quiet—none of the vibrant, macho, thumping music we usually hear; the loudest sound was made by a player idly belching. Most of the players were already gone (it seemed that the Latino contingent was largely what remained), and we moved quickly and wordlessly to Montoyo's office, where he mock-scolded us for acting like someone had died. "They're professionals," he said, by way of explanation of his team's low mood after a thorough beating. Still, it was surprising to see the place half empty so soon after the ballgame ended. For his part, Montoyo looked a little beleaguered, which was odd for a manager whose team is leading the division by a fairly comfortable margin. He headed off questions about the lineup's suddenly cold bats by simply acknowledging them, then defended his decision to lift Hellickson after 86 pitches rather than allow him to try to pitch out of trouble in the sixth inning. We asked him about tonight's game over at the old Durham Athletic Park, and he joked that he hoped his team would hit more fly balls to right field than Toledo: it's only 290 feet down the right field line. As it happens, the Bulls have a lefty pitching, Heath Phillips, which will turn around the Mud Hens' two switch hitters to the starboard side; but as it also happens, the Toledo starter, Phil Dumatrait, is also a southpaw.

***

Couple of injury notes: Fernando Perez tripled in the fifth inning last night. The next batter, Joe Dillon, lined out to third base, and Perez, who was breaking for home, had to dive back toward the bag. He was actually tagged out, but umpire Toby Basner issued the seldom-seen ruling that Yankees' third baseman Matt Cusick had pushed Perez off his course back to the base. Perez, however, didn't get up. He was in obvious pain. After a while, he took some practice jogs up and down the left-field line, then decided he could stay in the game. But after the sixth inning, Elliot Johnson spelled him in right field. According to Montoyo—who sighed at having to talk about yet another injury to one of his players—Perez sprained his ankle. I suspect he won't be out long.

Justin Ruggiano will be out at least another week after injuring his biceps swinging at a ball last week, according to Montoyo.

Jeff Bennett is back in the clubhouse. That's probably a sign that he'll be pitching again soon.

***

The movie Bull Durham is kind of required reading for all English-speaking baseball players. Heath Phillips, who starts at the old DAP tonight, told me the other day that he's seen it multiple times, and that it's probably the truest baseball movie. (He also affected not to know he would be pitching at the DAP on Monday, and that the game scenes from the movie were shot there. Yeah, sure, Heath.) Dan Johnson, when asked if he had seen the movie, responded the way I imagine a dog trainer would if asked whether he had seen Best in Show. You can't be a ballplayer and not see it, apparently.

I've walked by the ballpark a lot recently—I live right near it—and have seen how hard everyone's working to get the place ready. It should be quite an event, and for a former employee of the team way back in the mid-1980s, it's going to be a thrill. Even though the place is tiny, the Bulls are still selling tickets to the game, and it's your first chance to see the Bulls play there since—can you believe this?—1994. Who knows when there will be another one? I'll see you there.

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