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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Durham Bulls edge Louisville Bats in ten innings: The finishing touch

Posted by on Thu, Jul 1, 2010 at 12:06 AM

The Bulls Dan Johnson
  • Photo by D. L. Anderson
  • The Bulls' Dan Johnson
DBAP/DURHAM—Out beyond the center field wall at the DBAP, across Roxboro St., a crane kept sweeping across the sky for the first few innings of last night's game. It was part of a massive downtown construction project. (If anyone knows what's being built, please inform.) The distant movement doesn't interfere with hitters' sightlines, according to the Bulls' Dan Johnson, but from behind the plate it was a constant distraction, and a reminder that the Bulls were having season-long trouble finishing what their opponents had started.

Plenty of observers had noticed Bulls' disability when it came to late rallies. When this week began, they had trailed after seven innings 27 times, and had lost all 27 games. When you have the league's best run differential (by far; it isn't close), the numbers virtually guarantee that you'll start to win some of those late-deficit games.

Sure enough, the correction has been quickly made. After last night's 10-inning, 5-4 comeback win over the Louisville Bats, capped off by a bases-loaded walk to Jose Lobaton, the Bulls have now won three straight games that they trailed after seven innings—not just three down-after-seven-frames games, spread out over some number of weeks or something; but literally three games in a row. Those three wins have lifted the Bulls out of a tie for last in the league in that category, and improved them all the way up to seventh. (The lesson there is that you don't win many games you trail after seven innings: Pawtucket and Buffalo have the best mark in that circumstance; they're are tied at 5-33.) With the Bulls' recent trio of clutch-time wins, there's only one team left in the International League that hasn't won a single game in 2010 when they've trailed after seven innings. That team happens to be the Louisville Bats.

So it seems that the Bulls, who are the only team in the league not to have lost a game when leading after seven innings, have finally figured out how to do the one thing that had eluded them. They are now finished with learning how to finish games. And last night, they showed their best starter, Jeremy Hellickson, who struggled at finishing, how it's done.

In his previous start, Hellickson had little fastball command but good offspeed stuff, so he "pitched backwards," as he put it, starting hitters off with his secondary pitches and using the fastball as a complement. Last night, the problem was reversed: Hellickson's fastball had good life, but his changeup was erratic and his curveball wasn't sharp. His cutter, which he's been throwing more and more lately, just sailed over the plate and was almost useless last night. (His catcher, Jose Lobaton, visited the mound in the fourth inning to tell Hellickson he was dropping his elbow when throwing it.) Hellickson said he felt good and that he was basically pleased with his work, but he did admit that he missed with some pitches and fell behind in the count too much—so really, truth be told, that fastball wasn't so effective after all. The life was there but the location wasn't always. Gary Matthews, Jr., the major-league veteran trying to play his way back to the majors, led off the game with a triple to deep right-centerfield (it eluded Justin Ruggiano out there just long enough for Matthews, who runs very well, to motor onto third base). He scored on a groundout, and then Hellickson fanned the dangerous power bats Yonder Alonso and Wladimir Balentien on a total of six pitches. He seemed to be getting his act together.

But then he hung a 2-2 curveball to Juan Francisco leading off the second inning, and Francisco drilled it down the right-field line for a resounding solo homer into the Home Run Patio. (When I verified with him that the pitch was indeed a curve, Hellickson deadpanned, "Yeah. [pause] A bad one.") In the third, three straight singles—one on a very good pitch that Balentien went down and smacked up the middle—plated another run.

The Bats have a lot of very talented young hitters, and they like to hit fastballs, even good ones. On a night when Hellickson couldn't use his offspeed stuff as much as he might have wanted to, he was essentially forced to throw Louisville more of the pitch they were hoping to see: the fastball. Hellickson said afterward that he made some good 0-2 pitches that were hit hard. He also made some good pitches that weren't hit at all: his 95 pitches produced 14 swings-and-misses, a whopping 12 of those whiffs in the first 66 pitches he threw. But as the game wore on, the Bats started timing Hellickson better; he had all four of his strikeouts in his first 2 2/3 innings, and it is quite telling that, of the nine hits he allowed (that tied his season high), seven of them came with two strikes. There were also some hard-hit outs.

(An additional observation: Hellickson doesn't field his position with much alacrity, except on bunt attempts: he merely glanced at a couple of well-struck grounders that went over the pitcher's mound and through for singles; he may not have been able to catch them even if he had reached down and made a stab, but he didn't try very hard in the first place.)

In sum: Hellickson just couldn't finish off the hitters; he needed at least five pitches for 11 of his 23 at-bats against a rather impatient Louisville lineup. He didn't walk anyone, which was essential on a night when he allowed so many hits, but he was lucky nonetheless that he left after five inefficient innings (29 pitches in the third inning alone) with only three runs on his tab.

Part of that luck came courtesy of Dan Johnson, who played left field on a night when Desmond Jennings was getting a scheduled off-day. Johnson, who seldom plays the outfield, made an excellent sliding catch to end the third inning with two men on base; in the fourth, he hustled to cut off Drew Sutton's single in the alley and threw Sutton out trying to stretch the hit into a double. Johnson was particularly proud of that last play, and added that, although he takes great pride in his fieldwork at first base (his natural position) and his coverage of third base (where he has mostly played this season), he does practice in the outfield to stay sharp, even taking caroms off of the notoriously difficult Blue Monster. His practice paid off last night. Charlie Montoyo said afterward that Johnson's two fielding plays were the keys to the win. (Note to Rays: Johnson can play outfield, too!)

Johnson also added a pair of run-scoring singles. The first of these was a very canny opposite-field poke into left field of a sweeping Ben Jukich breaking ball into left field. For the second, he stayed back on a curveball—by reactive instinct; he said later that he was looking for a fastball from Jukich—and lined it into right field.

Johnson's main accomplices were Justin Ruggiano, who bracketed three singles with two strikeouts (he's now up to 12th in the league in that category, despite having played in 10-plus games fewer than most of the guys above him), and Chris Richard. Richard, patient as always—his eighth-inning at-bat against Aroldis Chapman was the game's biggest on Tuesday night—nearly missed homering on a 3-2 pitch from Jukich in the second inning; he flied out to deep center field on a night when the ball wasn't carrying. (Too bad; a dinger would have punctuated the memorable grand slam he hit off Jukich in Richard's two-granny game last year.) Richard broke through with a single in the sixth, and then tied the game in the eighth inning with a booming double to left-center field off of reliever Enerio Del Rosario.

That tie was enabled by the first of two charmed substitutions Montoyo made last night. Before Richard doubled, Montoyo replaced Dioner Navarro, who had singled, with pinch-runner Omar Luna. Navarro probably wouldn't have scored from first on Richard's hit. In the game-winning tenth inning, Joe Dillon singled with one out and Montoyo swapped him out for Desmond Jennings. Luna batted next and hit what would ordinarily have been a double-play ball to second base. But Jennings, with his speed, beat Chris Valaika's throw to second base, according to umpire Toby Basner. (Valaika complained about the call, which was a little confusing; it also seemed like perhaps Basner was actually ruling that Valaika's throw had pulled the shortstop off the base. But I think Jennings was just safe.)

And then more charm. Perhaps a bit rattled by the fielding gaffe—Valaika should probably have just taken his sure out at first base—Bats' reliever Jared Burton walked Chris Richard on five pitches. The bases were loaded. With the count 2-1 to the next hitter, Jose Lobaton, Burton threw a pitch that appeared to be more or less right down the middle. Home plate umpire David Rackley called it a ball. Louisville catcher Wilkin Castillo was so aggrieved by the call that he sat down behind home plate for several seconds, complaining, like a child who has been unjustly cheated in a game and simply refuses to play anymore. He finally got back into his crouch; Burton threw another pitch, this one very close to the plate but probably just a bit off of it; Rackley again declined to call it a strike; and Lobaton had himself a game-winning, bases-loaded walk. Sometimes you can only come back late if someone opens up a lane for you. Castillo loped away, disgusted, as the Bulls celebrated their third straight win. They're now 48-31, a season-high 17 games over .500. Their nine-game lead over second-place Charlotte seems like it might as well be 90.

Some notes:

* Three Bulls made the All-Star Team: Joe Dillon and Johnsons Dan and Elliot. Elliot and Dillon have missed about six weeks of action between them, so their selection (by "the league office") is curious—it hasn't been a banner year for International League middle infielders, though, and you can't really make a convincing case for anyone else. Johnson was voted in as Designated Hitter and will start. Congrats to all three—and to Charlie Montoyo, who will manage the team—although it's too bad they don't get to take a few days off and relax. Instead, they will thrill to the sights and sounds of Allentown, PA, which is hosting the annual exhibition between the International and Pacific Coast Leagues.

In case you're wondering why Hellickson wasn't named to the team—he certainly deserves it—that's because he's going to pitch instead in the major-league "Futures" game, an exhibition played as part of the big-league All-Star pageant. (Montoyo will be at the Futures game too. Whew. No rest for the weary.)

* Elliot Johnson told me he'd back in action on either July 6 or 7. He's probably healthy enough to play right now, but the Tampa brass are always extra-cautious with injured players. Johnson is raring to go, and was clearly going slightly stir crazy waiting out his rehab period. Expect Omar Luna to be sent back to the moon from which he and his name came once Johnson is back.

* Look also for a number of other changes soon. Carlos Hernandez is healthy now and will take his regular turn in the rotation tonight. That means Brian Baker, who started two games with superb results in Hernandez's stead, will have to sit around waiting for someone else to get injured or shelled for another chance to see some action. With Virgil Vasquez back in the rotation, too, Aneury Rodriguez is back to the bullpen. Darin Downs remains with the Bulls for now—he got credit for a victory last night by pitching a 1-2-3 10th inning—but his stay in Durham is likely to end once Dale Thayer returns. No word on when that will be, though. And somewhere, Jo-Jo Jason Cromer and his strained elbow are still trying to get back to where they once belonged. Plus, we're now less than a month away from the July 31 trade deadline. Who's dealin' who?

* CORRECTION. After last Saturday's game, some combination of fatigue and wishful thinking led me to report that Charlie Montoyo's son, Alex, was "recovering" from Ebstein's Anomaly. I was quickly reminded by someone close to the Montoyo family that Ebstein's is a lifelong condition which will eventually require Alex to have a heart transplant. I apologize for the error, which I should have caught, and I hope that all involved know that it was made in the best spirit of hopefulness.

* Over in the print edition (and its online sibling), my follow-up piece to the one I published last year about the long, strange trip of former Bulls reliever Jason Childers is now up and at 'em. If you're interested in seeing what becomes of some of our Bulls (when they don't make the major leagues), check it out. I dare say that the current piece is better than last year's. Childers was one of the most affable and articulate Bulls of 2009, and we at Triangle Offense wish him well.

* Tonight's game sees the returning (from a hip flexor strain) Carlos Hernandez battle the Bats' lefty Matt Maloney. The Bulls faced him last year in Louisville, where Chris Richard hit a homer off Maloney (who is one of the Cincinnati Reds' ten best prospects). Look for Hernandez to last only about five or six innings. From there, the bullpen will take over, which this year has been a wonderful thing for the Bulls: the team that just won its first games when trailing after seven innings hasn't allowed an opponent to do that against them yet this season—they're the only team with a perfect record when leading after seven. You'd better believe that the relievers are the reason why (the starters are nearly always gone by the eighth inning.) Last night, in relief of Hellickson, Mike Ekstrom, Joe Bateman and Darin Downs threw five innings and allowed just one run. It was unearned thanks to an error charged to Joe Dillon on a botched stolen-base play—personally, I thought it could just easily have been blamed on Lobaton's poor throw. A curious stat: the Bulls have made just 38 errors this season; their opponents, 68. Yet the Bulls have scored only three more unearned runs than their adversaries, despite far more errors on other teams. Is that because they don't capitalize on mistakes as well? If so, that's one more thing they'll have to learn how to finish.

* I am not supposed to do this, but I simply cannot finish this post without wishing a very, very, happy birthday (and good morning!) to my favorite h.a.m., who is more fun to watch a baseball game with than anyone else I've ever met. She's a model of fandom, and quite simply a model. If hitting is timing and pitching is disrupting timing, then she is perfect timing.

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