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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Gwinnett Braves shut out Durham Bulls: The Blur

Posted by on Sat, Jul 3, 2010 at 10:38 PM

Bulls pitcher Richard De Los Santos
  • photo courtesy of Durham Bulls
  • Bulls' pitcher Richard De Los Santos
DBAP/ DURHAM—It's usually Heather who waits patiently for me near the main gate after the game while I'm down in the clubhouses doing postgame interviews. But last night I got finished quickly and she was still watching the postgame fireworks, so I found a chair on the lower concourse and watched the large crowd (9,932) file out after the Bulls were blanked, 3-0, by Todd Redmond and the Gwinnett Braves. It was the Braves' seventh straight win.

A blur of color and voices moved past me as I sat there, a lot of individual conversations, genetic uniquenesses and the spectrum of colors. I was simultaneously aware of the many thousands of unrepeatable steps, sounds and shapes, and also of how impenetrable all of them were when swirled up together in an exodus. The crowd didn't move by quickly, exactly; just in a great wash of singular but subsumed phenomena, oceanic and dreamy.

Last night's game was a bit like that—many unique events that somehow became a blur. It was hard to tell whether Todd Redmond's seven shutout innings were as dominant as they seemed, or whether the Bulls were simply flattering his pitches, none of which topped 90 mph, with obsequious swings. It was also hard to tell whether his mound opponent, Durham's Richard De Los Santos, did a good job in limiting the Braves to two runs in his seven innings of work, or whether he ought to have somehow been better—he made some bad pitches. The Braves scored twice on solo homers—one a monster shot by Mitch Jones, but were otherwise rather quiet. Ten Braves in a row were retired by De Los Santos at one point, and nine of the last 10 went down as well.

But Gwinnett's production was still more than enough; the Bulls only seemed to be really in the game for one swing of the bat. Down 1-0 in the fourth inning, with a man on first base, Dan Johnson hit a long fly ball to deep center field. It looked like a two-run homer, but it was caught at the wall by Jordan Schaefer. There was a minor rally in the seventh inning, Redmond's last, but it was aided by a fielding error and the Bulls didn't appear to be seriously threatening. So Johnson's near-homer was the only moment of the night that looked potent for the Bulls.

Last night's game was a full hour shorter than Friday's slovenly marathon, a 10-5 loss, but it didn't feel especially fast and it wasn't exactly a pitcher's duel; it lacked that tautness and electricity. It was a game that featured, appropriately, a pair of R. J. Swindle's 50-mph curveballs, which like the departing crowd afterward moved slowly but was impossible to parse: slow blurs. Charlie Montoyo left the game after seven innings to attend to what we were told later was a personal matter. And sure enough, as I guessed yesterday, Justin Ruggiano didn't play despite a history of great success against Redmond. No telling if he would've made a difference, one of many things it seemed impossible to descry.

Some particulars after the jump.

With Charlie Montoyo gone from the DBAP by the time we got into the clubhouse, pitching coach Xavier Hernandez did postgame interview duty. He seemed to think that it was Redmond who dictated the game and deserved credit, rather than some failure of the Bulls' lineup. (I probably should have asked the hitters what they thought, but only Ruggiano was around for long, and he didn't play, of course. The clubhouse was rather sullen.) To be sure, Redmond moved his pitches all around the plate and up and down, and even changed his arm angle here and there. So even though the Bulls didn't look especially flummoxed by Redmond's pitches—they've now seen him seven times since April 2009—they could never really get comfortable, and only once did two batters reach in a row; no one advanced past second. They didn't swing and miss all that much (nine times at 105 pitches), and they made nine outs in the air off of Redmond, but few of those air outs were hit very hard. Half of the Bulls' six strikeouts were the caught-looking variety, which indicates that Redmond was hitting his spots and that the Bulls weren't looking for pitches there.

De Los Santos looked shaky early. Only half of his first 60 pitches were strikes, and his fastball wasn't crisp, as Xavier Hernandez put it. But De Los Santos made a minor mechanical adjustment somewhere around the third or fourth inning—he was opening up too much at the end of his delivery and needed to stay closer (mostly with his front side, which was opening up too soon, it seemed, from what he was telling us). He wasn't exactly great after that, but he threw a higher percentage of strikes and got outs when he needed them. He also made good plays in the field, one of which saved him a run in the first inning—he stabbed a hard chopper and threw out a runner trying to advance to third. There were eight outs in the air off of De Los Santos—too many for a sinkerballer—but they weren't dangerous ones, mostly. He only got three swings-and-misses on 102 pitches. (Contrast that with R. J. Swindle, who got three of those against the first hitter he faced in the eighth inning.) On most nights, if a Bulls starter goes seven innings and allows two runs at home, where the team is 27-14, he'll get a win. Not so last night.

If Durham was going to come back they needed to do it against reliever Stephen Marek in the eighth inning. With the outstanding young Braves' closer Craig Kimbrel waiting to pitch the ninth, it was the eighth or nothing for the Bulls. And as I was reminded by the Bulls' official Game Notes (I assume broadcaster Neil Solondz does these; they're excellent), the eighth inning was crucial in all four games against Louisville this week.

Sure enough, the Bulls hit Marek hard. But Fernando Perez's opposite-field fly down the right-field line was caught at the warning track for an out, and after Desmond Jennings singled to right, both J. J. Furmaniak and Angel Chavez hit balls well to center field that were both caught for outs—Furmaniak's was rather deep. Kimbrel came on in the ninth, did his thing (mid-90s fastball with life, slider with good break) and put down Dan Johnson, Joe Dillon and Chris Richard (1-11 since Wednesday with just an infield single) without much trouble, although he did need 18 pitches to work through the three veterans' at-bats. The Bulls flied out to center five times last night. Had Dan Johnson's and Furmaniak's drives been hit to right or left, we might be telling a different story. Instead, they're lost to the blur.

Only two at-bats from last night linger in the mind. Mike Ekstrom came on in relief of De Los Santos and got the first two outs of the eighth inning on three pitches. Then Mitch Jones, who led all Triple-A hitters in home runs last year (35, with Albuquerque), stepped in. Ekstrom got strike one on Jones, and then threw three straight balls. Two of those were very close pitches, and Ekstrom was visibly annoyed not to get strikes called. Were they strikes? Hard to tell—pitches are blurs. Certainly they were blurry enough to be called balls without a riot ensuing. Now down 3-1, Ekstrom tried his fastball, and Jones, who was waiting for it, hit one of the longest home runs I've ever seen at the DBAP. It hit way up over the Tobacco Road Cafe, three or four balconies up. Ekstrom, disgusted, didn't even watch it go. After he retired Joe Thurston on a foul-out to end the inning, he cut his eyes at plate umpire D. J. Reyburn while walking to the dugout.

Ekstrom has allowed 10 runs in his last 12 innings of work, and his ERA has jumped from under 1.00 to 2.38. He seems to have good stuff most of the time—a 93-mph fastball with some hop, and what appears to be a slider that has good fade (but needs more tilt, perhaps). What last night's game reminded me, though, was that you often have to be better than close, closer than near, to get hitters out; often you have to remove all trace of blur and be unerringly fine. The difference between the majors and the minors, it sometimes seems to me, is precisely that.

The other memorable at-bat was Jordan Schaefer's versus Swindle. Swindle threw sliders in the 69-mph range and Schaefer whiffed at two of them. Schaefer kind of smiled to himself after one swing and miss, a little embarrassed perhaps. Another slider was taken for a ball. Then Swindle went to the 50-mph curveball (he confirmed for me after the game that a curve is indeed what it is, and made a vaguely farty noise with his mouth to describe its movement) and Schaefer swung and missed again for strike three. This time, as the crowd cheered, delighted by the radar gun reading of the pitch (and the out, of course), Schaefer walked away with a look on his face that was equal parts disbelief and dismay, as if to say, "Is that even allowed?" His teammates made fun of him in the dugout. Swindle seemed tickled to hear about that later. He said he learned the super-slow curve "screwing around in the outfield" when he first started in pro ball (he went to Charleston Southern University). "I had a harder curveball that got hit around a little bit," so he adjusted the grip—it's more fingertips now, which slows the flight of the ball.

Swindle also said that his fastball, which currently sits at about 80 mph, has lost a few ticks since his pre-season oblique strain. It used to hit 83-84, he said. It would be good to see it return there, to add more separation between that pitch and his slider. The curve, it's safe to say, is plenty separated as it is. In 29.1 innings this year, Swindle has allowed just 16 hits and three walks, with 26 strikeouts. Does his blurry stuff translate to the majors? It'd be fun to find out, although the Rays have another sidearming lefty, Randy Choate, holding down what would presumably be Swindle's big-league roster spot. Swindle and Choate: sounds like a pair of petty criminals in a Dickens novel.

Two quick injury notes: Dale Thayer (forearm strain) threw a bullpen on Saturday and reported no ill effects, so look for him to come off the disabled list on Monday. I'm guessing Darin Downs will return to Montgomery, although Aneury Rodriguez, who is just 22, hasn't looked very good lately—20 hits, nine runs (all earned) and six walks in his last 13 1/3 innings over four appearances—and it might not be a terrible idea to send him down to Class AA for some slightly less pressured refinement. If nothing else, Downs gives the Bulls another lefty arm out of the bullpen to complement Swindle. Elliot Johnson (quad) should be back in action on Tuesday or Wednesday in Charlotte. That should do it for Omar Luna, who has overperformed while in Durham. The correct response to that surprise is to thank Luna for it, quit while you're ahead and send him back down to Charlotte or Montgomery.

Given Charlie Montoyo's son Alex's medical condition, here's hoping that the manager's early departure last night signaled nothing serious. The Bulls and Braves continue their series on Sunday at 7:05 PM (note the later-than-usual Sunday start time), with Gwinnett's Ryne Reynoso facing the Bulls' Virgil Vasquez in a July 4 tilt that should be sold out or close to it. For my money, I might rather shoot for Monday at 5:05 PM, when the crowd won't be quite such a blur. Jeremy Hellickson, who hasn't been quite as sharp lately, looks to put it all back together that night against 22-year-old Jose Ortegano, whom the Bulls hammered for eight hits and seven runs in 3 1/3 innings a few weeks ago at the DBAP. But really, why not go to both ballgames and get a healthy dose of the national pastime on Independence Day weekend?

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