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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Louisville Bats swat Durham Bulls: All The Young Dudes

Posted by on Sat, Jul 3, 2010 at 6:00 AM

YoungGuns.jpg
DBAP/DURHAM—Every summer I run an intensive two-week writing workshop for high school students. I really love doing it, and it's happening right now. Our 39 young writers from all over the US (plus one from Mexico City) are all in the thick of self-designed prose or poetry projects, and I spend my days working with them and reading their writing. It tends to be either startlingly potent and affecting or totally zonked, rarely anything between the two extremes. They're at that age when, full of coltish excitement, just coming into their own as thinkers and users of language, they are easily carried away by their enthusiasms, largely because they don't know how to harness their passions or their nascent skills. They will write a brilliant sentence followed by an incomprehensible one. They will come up with a genius idea and then muck it up with cliches. They will tell you that they are dying to learn how to express themselves clearly, then balk at the ways suggested to do so. They are, in short, young writers.

Which brings us to the Louisville Bats. Scan their roster, and you will see a whopping 17 players 26 years old or less. The Bulls have nine. The Bats' starting infield is a combined 94 years old. Durham manager Charlie Montoyo often fields one that, by August 10, will be 133.

Bats' Manager Rick Sweet told us after the game that he's never had a Triple-A team so young. They have probably got the largest collection of very talented true prospects in the International League, but after pounding the Bulls, last night, 10-5, they are still just 37-45, last in the IL West Division.

Louisville won last night with a prodigious display of hitting. They belted—and I do mean belted—four doubles, a triple and a homer, and stung hard singles all over the field. They had 15 hits off of four Durham pitchers.

They also had 15 strikeouts. Eleven of the last 12 outs they made were Ks.

Their prime pitching prospect, the lefty Cuban fireballer Aroldis Chapman, is either brilliant or juvenile, sometimes in the course of two innings or even batters. He looked unhittable in his first frame last night, striking out Justin Ruggiano with a 100-mph missile and Dan Johnson with a handful of painful, I'll-just-go-sit-back-down-now 84-mph sliders (or something like sliders). But then he was touched for a run in his next inning, issuing a costly walk to Jose Lobaton, throwing a wild pitch, and trying unwisely to retire Omar Luna with breaking pitches (high hard fastballs would have done the job). Chapman paid for his inexperience when Luna bounced an opposite-field grounder to first base that took a bad hop and went for a run-scoring single. (Rick Sweet reminded us that Chapman has just been moved to the bullpen and isn't used to relieving. "He still doesn't understand the game," Sweet said.)

The Bats are like the young writers I teach: just as likely to hit long, impressive drives as to swing and miss weakly or foolishly. Just as likely to strike out the side as to hit batters in the side. Just as likely to get 15 hits as to strike out 15 times. Or to do both at once.

After losing three straight games to the Bulls in which they'd outhit Durham—in fact, as Rick Sweet pointed out, they outhit their opponent in every single game of their 8-game road trip (they went 3-5)—they finally won one. But this apparent 10-5 romp was much closer than the final score suggests. The Bulls' treacherous old age gave the Bats' youth and skill another fight.

Dan Johnson is 30 years old. He's having a superb year: All-Star team, vying for the Triple Crown, leading the league in homers and OPS, near the top in walks drawn. He hit a two-run homer in the first inning off of Bats' starter Matt Klinker (25 years old) to give the Bulls a short-lived 2-0 lead. (Durham has outscored its opponents 60-33 in the first inning this season!) After the Bats erased it with one of the meekest three-run innings you'll ever see—only one ball was hit hard—and then went up 4-2 on a fifth-inning single off the Blue Monster by Yonder Alonso (23), Johnson tied the score with another two-run homer off of Klinker. Johnson told us after the game that the pitch he hit for the latter tater was the second nice, fat four-seam fastball down the middle Klinker threw him during the at-bat. Johnson let the first one go by. "I can't believe I didn't swing at that," Johnson said of the first one. But Klinker made a youthful mistake in throwing it again, and this time Johnson hit a long bomb into the right-centerfield bleachers. Tie game.

Unfortunately for the Bulls, starter Heath Phillips (28) had used up all his bullets by then. He needed a profligate 74 pitches to get through three innings and was done after five. Because long reliever Brian Baker had been burned out the previous night (Durham starter Carlos Hernandez only lasted 4 2/3 innings on Thursday), Charlie Montoyo had to call on Darin Downs, his own youngish lefty up from Double-A Montgomery in what is probably a bisquick stint. [ed. note: "Bisquicked": to be called up from the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits when a Bull gets injured and then sent back down as soon as he returns from the injury.] Downs (25) surrendered a run in the sixth on a broken-bat single by Gary Matthews, Jr. (36 next month, the Bats' age outlier), but Joe Bateman (30) rescued him in the seventh after a one-out triple by Juan Francisco (23), getting two strikeouts to keep Francisco from scoring.

Charlie Montoyo noted after the game that his bullpen has been heavily taxed in this series; his starters have not pitched past the fifth inning against Louisville, and one of his relievers, R. J. Swindle, has been away to attend the birth of his child. "Bateman was due to give up some runs," Montoyo said. Bateman had been charged with a run in just one of his previous 14 outings, and came into the game with a tiny 1.25 ERA. He was poor in the eighth inning after bailing out Downs in the seventh. He loaded the bases and then gave up an opposite-field grand slam to Alonso (still 23)—which, to be fair, was a Blue Monster special, a longish but high pop fly that just barely cleared the wall—that made it 9-4 and pretty much ended the game. The Bulls, via Omar Luna's bad-hop single, touched Aroldis Chapman for a run to make it 9-5, but Aneury Rodriguez (22) let in another run in the ninth inning on three singles and a walk. When the run scored, R. J. Swindle, who just returned to the team and had been warming in the bullpen, promptly sat back down: forget it, Montoyo decided. Seeya Louisville.

And who knows, perhaps we will. They're 13 games out of first place with about 60 to play, but don't be entirely surprised if the very, very young, very, very talented Louisville Bats suddenly put it all together after the All-Star break and make a playoff push. Most organizations would drool over the Reds' Triple-A talent. Manager Rick Sweet—who was a real pleasure to talk to, affable, snappy, articulate and forthcoming (he gave us a good-natured ribbing for talking to him only after a Louisville victory, never when they lose; a real charmer)—noted his team's poor at-bats with runners in scoring position, a thoughtless baserunning mistake that cost them a potential run, Aroldis Chapman's (22) susceptibility to meltdowns when he gets bad luck. (Sweet credited J. J. Furmaniak's long, foul-em-off at-bat, which ended in a soft single, with rattling Chapman and leading to his unraveling on Tuesday night.) Yet for all that, they are eminently capable of performances like last night's, when despite 15 strikeouts they trounced the league's best team, a veteran squad with lots of seasoning.

Even the younger Bulls seem more poised than the Bats' kids. Todd Frazier (24) got himself ejected arguing balls and strikes the other night; no Bull has done that this year except Matt Joyce, to the best of my knowledge. The Bats' hitters (I would love to remove the space between those two words) often look aggrieved in an adolescent way when the ump calls strikes they don't like, or they throw down their bat or helmet petulantly after striking out swinging. Catcher Wilkin Castillo plopped down into a sitting position after a bad call on Wednesday, like a kid who just refuses to keep trying when things don't go his way. There's a fair amount of pouting and hotheadedness on this team. Rick Sweet pointed out, astutely, that his team has virtually no veteran leadership. "Usually you've got three or four guys that are four- or five-year Triple-A veterans," he said. "You just always have that; we don't." Although the team has a lot of of talent, "talent like this moves faster when you have the veteran guys. That's the whole rub. [The Bulls] have three or four veteran guys there [it's more like 11 or 12] who are studs—solid—and they help the young guys get better. We don't have that, so we have to learn through experience and failure."

Why haven't the Reds stocked Louisville with a few Chris Richards (36) and Joe Dillons (34) and Winston Abreus (33)? "Money," Sweet answered. "Pure money." It says a great deal about the Rays that they're willing to write checks for guys like Alvin Colina (28) and Carlos Hernandez (30), steadying presences who help teach young players the ropes. I've noticed, for example, that Jeremy Hellickson (23) has grown quickly comfortable and relaxed in the clubhouse, and seems totally at ease talking to reporters, even after starts when he isn't on his game and struggles. The argument Rick Sweet is making is that Hellickson's rapid maturation owes more than a little to the mature guys around him. Players don't develop ex nihilo.

It follows, then, that it helps if a team is winning, which is largely the residue of having "solid studs," as Sweet calls them, like Dan Johnson to hit homers and Winston Abreu to save games for youngsters like Hellickson. It's hard to grow as a player when your team is in last place; you have to generate your own individual morale on a daily basis and fight against your team's trends and mood. Note how the Rays are generating organizational morale that its players can tap into for their own personal growth and benefit. Tampa's top three farm teams have winning records, and at least two are almost sure to make the postseason. Sometimes you can learn a lot about the Bulls by looking at their opponents and how they're treated by their parent organizations.

***

Heath Phillips was both better and worse than his line last night suggests. He allowed no home runs (for just the seventh time in 17 starts) and only a few hard-hit balls; but he also ran copious deep counts—11 of 24 at-bats used more than four pitches before concluding, a partial contributor to the appalling 3:28 run-time—and he also hit two batters. He wasn't around to talk to after the game, but I bet Phillips would have said that he lacked command. It's to his credit that, after allowing consecutive lasers off the Blue Monster in the fifth, he recovered with three straight outs. When Dan Johnson hit his fifth-inning homer, that got Phillips off the hook for the loss—and you couldn't help thinking that he deserved the reprieve. Charlie Montoyo gives us "he battled" pretty much every time his pitchers don't have their best stuff, but last night the old saw seemed appropriate.

Dan Johnson, who played left field again (I'm starting to think that this is as per orders from Tampa, although on the other hand the only other guy who can spell the three regulars is first baseman Chris Richard), hit his two homers on a night when his walkup music changed. The new selection wasn't his—"every time I choose my own music I can't hit," he said—so I have no idea why it was the 1980s synth classic "Safety Dance" by Men Without Hats. I guess after last night's long ball outburst, we'll continue to hear it till further notice. Justin Ruggiano was introduced by the Led Zeppelin opus "Kashmir," Chris Richard strode to the plate to "Walk This Way" (the Run DMC version) and J. J. Furmaniak got Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away." Usually, music substitutions are attached to special occasions (or, in one memorable game last year, slumps), so there's no obvious explanation for last night's alterations.

Injury update: Dale Thayer may be back from his forearm stiffness issue on Sunday (Darin Downs down, probably, when that happens). Even if it's a day or two later than that, Charlie Montoyo's suggested return date for Thayer is reassuring: it means that his setback is probably nothing serious.

Injury update #2: Desmond Jennings returned to the lineup after missing two days with the same sore shoulder that has bothered him most of the year. It's a tweaky ailment that doesn't seem to have an available fix; he just has to play through it. Jennings was 0-3 with a pair of walks. Caught stealing once.

R. J. Swindle, as mentioned, has rejoined the team. No roster move was necessary, as the Bulls were playing a man down. Expect to see Swindle, probably for multiple innings, on Saturday. Expect to see me, too, for all nine (or as many as it takes). Game time is at 7:05 PM against the Gwinnett Braves. Richard De Los Santos starts for Durham against the Braves' Todd Redmond, who will make his third start against the Bulls this season and seventh (!) since April of 2009. Apparently familiarity breeds contempt. At least it does for Justin Ruggiano, who has three homers and two doubles against Redmond since last year. What are the odds he'll get a day off tonight?

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