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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Durham Bulls beat Norfolk Tides: Meritocracy

Posted by on Sat, Jul 10, 2010 at 6:00 AM

Virgil Vasquez in action earlier this year
  • Photo by D. L. Anderson
  • Virgil Vasquez in action earlier this year
DBAP/ DURHAM—You could have probably won some money if you had bet, earlier this year, that by the All-Star break Brian Baker and Virgil Vasquez would have combined to earn a full fifth of the Bulls' victories and been responsible for none of the team's losses—they're 11-0. Baker was something of an afterthought, a soft-throwing (and soft-spoken) right-hander who spent 2009 with Class AA Montgomery, where his numbers were nothing more than average. He seemed like the kind of pitcher who would probably hang around for a bit until someone else came along—a younger guy, or a harder-throwing one, or a guy acquired via trade—and then get sent back to Montgomery to work on his stuff. But he's thrown strikes, has filled in admirably as both a long reliever and a spot starter, and is tied for second on the team in victories (seven) with another unlikely pitcher, Richard De Los Santos, who spent all of 2009 in Class A. Baker hasn't allowed a run in his last four appearances, totaling 15 1/3 innings. He threw five hitless innings in a spot start at Indianapolis on June 21, then followed that up with five more scoreless frames in a home start against Lehigh Valley on June 26.

Virgil Vasquez was a last-minute replacement for Jason Cromer, who was shelved with elbow problems late in spring training. A 28-year-old righty from Santa Barbara, Calif., Vasquez had had a couple of cups of coffee in the majors, first with Detroit and then with Pittsburgh, who traded him to the Rays for a player to be named later just a few days before the season started. Let's just say that if the pitiful Pirates think you're expendable, you must not be considered a big-league prospect. By anyone.

But after blanking the Norfolk Tides for 6 2/3 innings last night, earning his fourth win of the season in the Bulls' easy 7-2 win, Vasquez is 4-0. Who knows how many more wins he might have had he not missed two months recovering from fractured wrists, the result of a scooter accident not far from the DBAP? And who knows whether Vasquez might not have worked his way back into the big-league mix by now? Perhaps we shouldn't overstate the case, here—he doesn't throw hard; neither, for that matter, does Baker, and you have to be pretty near perfect to survive in the majors without a zingy fastball—but where supposedly reliable veterans like Bulls' starters Carlos Hernandez (injuries) and Heath Phillips (leads the league in homers allowed) have done little to recommend themselves for a callup (and, by the way, are a combined 12-10), Vasquez and Baker are at least, despite the odds, attempting to demand consideration based on nothing more or less than the strength of their performances. And in the end—which, in the cases of Vasquez and Baker, is admittedly still a long way off—baseball franchises don't care who you are or how you do what you do, if what you do is good and can help win ballgames. Keep doing it, and you'll play your way out of the minor leagues.

Just don't tell that to Dan Johnson. The Bulls' MVP of the first half hit a screaming homer (his league-leading 24th; the next guy below him has 18) and an RBI double last night (and narrowly missed a second homer) to pad his eye-opening stats. If the season ended today he'd have already had a really good year, but he is still mired in the sticky Durham summer. He heads to the Triple-A All-Star Game, where he'll participate in the (yawn) Home Run Derby, with nothing to do but add a few more exhibition pieces to his season-long display of power.

Honoring Johnson and all the meritorious after the jump.

It was a surprise to hear Virgil Vasquez quickly start to pick apart his performance after last night's game. To be sure, he fell behind two hitters in the first inning, and allowed well-struck singles to two of the first five batters of the game. But after that he ran through an impressive stretch in which he retired 14 of 15 Tides, needing just 52 pitches for the project—the lone batter to reach in that otherwise perfect 4 2/3 innings was grazed by a pitch. He needed a couple of good catches in the field by the Johnsons, Ellliot in left field and Dan at third base, but his pitches moved around the zone, up and down, in and out—Charlie Montoyo praised Vasquez's breaking ball control—and he allowed no walks.

But Vasquez, an articulate and bright guy with high self-awareness and team awareness (he credited the Johnsons for their fielding), wasn't satisfied with his slider or his cutter; his curveball was his best pitch last night. It wasn't that he was disparaging himself: he just wants to do better all the time, and knew that he could have gone deeper into the game with better command of his secondary pitches—"My goal was to go nine innings tonight," he said, and he was visibly disappointed on the mound when Montoyo emerged from the dugout to lift him for a reliever with two men on and two outs in the seventh inning. Vasquez was over 85 pitches at that point, and he's on a tighter limit than some of his rotation-mates until he gets all of his arm strength back post-injury. Even so, he wasn't upset with Montoyo. "I was more mad at myself... for falling behind and not attacking [the hitters]; he [Montoyo] is gonna do what he's gonna do."

What Montoyo was gonna do was replace Vasquez with Dale Thayer, who still doesn't really look himself this year. I'm wondering if that forearm tightness that recently sidelined him has been a nagging problem. Thayer misplaced a couple of fastballs and, like Vasquez, allowed singles to two of the first five men he faced; the double-play grounder that got him out of the eighth inning was hit hard by Michael Aubrey. But by then it was 6-0, Bulls, a score resistant even to the malingering of Darin Downs, who came on in the ninth, allowed back-to-back solo homers and then a single before forcing Montoyo to summon Winston Abreu—who gave up a near-homer of his own before closing it out with a total of four pitches. That efficiency, Montoyo pointed out later, will allow Abreu to go again tonight in Norfolk if necessary.

Although the Bulls scored seven more runs on Friday, they weren't exactly thunderous in doing it. They loaded the bases twice with no one out in the sixth inning and scored only one run, and then loaded them up again with one out in the seventh and failed to score at all. An easy double-play ball off the bat of Dan Johnson in the fifth was mishandled for a run-scoring error, and Justin Ruggiano nearly killed an eighth-inning rally with a 1-6-3 double play—Johnson followed with a two-out RBI double to the right-centerfield gap.

But the Bulls still managed to do all the damage they needed to do, helped along by five walks plus the error. (There should have been another one: Desmond Jennings got credit for a hit on a ball that should have been handled by Norfolk shortstop Robert Andino, who made a lazy, tentative play on Jennings's middling, one-hop liner, sort of a #1-pencil grade softie. He scored on Johnson's double.)

And what of Dan Johnson? He is by far the best hitter in the International League this year, and generally speaking guys who are by far the best in Class AAA don't stay there long. The only player with a higher OPS than Johnson, Carlos Santana (no, not that one) was promoted to the majors a month ago. In fact, plenty of worse players than Johnson, including his recent teammates Hank Blalock, Matt Joyce and Ryan Shealy, are or have been in the big leagues this year. Granted, Johnson's natural positions are occupied in Tampa by a pair of star players (Evan Longoria and the struggling Carlos Pena), but Johnson has been so potent this season that he is very nearly making the Tampa front office look stupid for leaving him in Durham—especially given that great runs like the one Johnson has been on this year don't last forever. The thunder can't be expected to continue for the rest of the season. If it happens to last to September, the Rays will have left a Triple Crown candidate in the minors all season while dutifully doling out at-bats to Blalock, Pat Burrell, Gabe Kapler, the floundering B. J. Upton, et al—at-bats that you have to think would be better used by Johnson, even adjusting for the inevitable diminution of numbers that would accompany a trip to the majors.

So I asked Johnson if he was frustrated. "Of course I'm frustrated. I didn't sign a big-league contract to spend a year in the minor leagues." And even though Johnson quickly added that he knows he can't control where he plays, he must be wondering why the Rays don't at least trade him to a team that can use him. (When Tampa was rumored to be pursuing the Mariners' hurler Cliff Lee, it was easy to speculate that Johnson might be off to Seattle, which needs bats badly.) You could, uncharitably, lay some of the blame on Johnson for choosing to sign on with a team that didn't have a demonstrated need for him on the big-league roster; but on the other hand it's reasonable to assume that Tampa gave Johnson a big-league contract because they planned to play him in the, you know, big leagues. Sometimes you have too many first-chair violinists when what you need is a french horn player. Nonetheless, Johnson deserves to play in the majors, somewhere. The Rays themselves are keeping Johnson from cashing in on his merits right now. Here's betting that things will have changed by the July 31 trading deadline. For Johnson's sake, I hope they do.

A few notes:

* It was a surprise, when Dale Thayer returned from the disabled list early this week, that Aneury Rodriguez, rather than Darin Downs, was handed the Hudson Valley sweatshirt. Baby A-Rod hasn't exactly been great lately—he has a 5.72 ERA over his last seven appearances—but Downs was called up from Montgomery in late June as a patch when other Bulls pitchers went down with injuries, and was presumably just holding down a spot for a while. His ERA with the Bulls is now an ugly 8.31. So why is he still on the team while Rodriguez, who is younger and has more time to grow, waits for a slot to open up? "We're looking for left-handed pitching in the big leagues," Montoyo answered, a reminder that southpaws are always at a premium. For further evidence of that, look no further than Tampa's re-signing yesterday of 41-year-old lefty side-armer Brian Shouse, who made 45 relief appearances for the Rays in 2009, latched on with Boston this year, was let go after an injury, and was immediately placed on the disabled list by the Rays after yesterday's deal was announced. He'll eventually work his way up through the minors and probably reach Durham at some point before his inevitable promotion to the big-league squad, which already has a lefty side-armer, Randy Choate, in the bullpen. And of course the Bulls have yet another one, R. J. Swindle, who has been more or less unhittable since he joined the team after rehabbing an injury to his oblique muscle.

(For more and perhaps totally damning evidence of how badly baseball teams crave left-handed pitchers, look no further than the Florida Marlins' recent callup of James Houser, who pitched dismally for the Bulls in 2009 before his midsummer release. Houser gave up a three-run homer to Miguel Tejada in his lone appearance with the Marlins before they returned him to the lefty pile down in the minors. James Houser? Are you serious?)

* Although Dan Johnson has returned to his usual corner-infield and DH position in the lineup, I wouldn't be surprised to see him in left field again at some point, even with Elliot Johnson off the disabled list (Elliot played left field last night). Charlie Montoyo told us that Dan Johnson's recent run of games in left was Montoyo's choice: "Nobody [i.e. the Rays' player development people] told me to play him in the outfield, but I know it's good for his career." So is hitting 24 home runs by the All-Star break (he's got two more games to add to that total) and leading the league in total bases, walks, slugging and sheer fearsomeness. It's gotten to the point where last night, after Tides' starter Tim Bascom fell behind Johnson 2-0 in the fourth inning, I turned to my press box co-inhabitants and announced that Johnson would hit the next pitch out of the park. Yes, I am psychic, but all anyone has to be right now in order to predict Dan Johnson's next homer is conscious. It's 2-0, you throw him a fastball right down the middle, it's a homer. Like when the Bulls ask you to guess the attendance on the video board? Of the three figures offered, it's always the highest one. Ratiocination is not required. Nor is the Wave, for that matter. But I digress complain.

* Nice to hear Charlie Montoyo offer unsolicited praise of Virgil Vasquez's character as well as his performance: "a nice kid and a good clubhouse guy," Montoyo noted, which prompted him to offer similar words about Dioner Navarro, who he said "has a good attitude. He's ready to work and get back to the big leagues." (Navarro had a hit, a walk and a well-struck sacrifice fly last night.) Vasquez made a point to seek out Winston Abreu in the clubhouse and thank him for closing out Vasquez's win (and he lauded Abreu in his interview with us, too); and he urged Bulls' television broadcaster Ken Tanner to give one of his "Star of the Game" nods to Abreu, who is rather shy about public and media attention. Whatever happens to Vasquez from here on out, it's refreshing to see a guy who seems to want not only to be a big-leaguer but a good teammate wherever he is. Those Santa Barbara boys—such plums.

* As we anticipate a week devoted to the official recognition and pageant of the meritorious, we wish well to the Bulls' two All-Star Game-bound players (the two Johnsons; Joe Dillon has apparently pulled out, presumably to let nagging injuries heal—sorry, forgot to ask him why), and to Futures Game participants Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings. Especial cap-tipping goes to Charlie Montoyo, who will be there for both of the games: He gets the headache honor of managing one and coaching in the other (he's got a red-eye from California to Pennsylvania mid-week). Hellickson will miss his scheduled start tonight in Norfolk in order to rest for the exhibition mound-work awaiting him out in Anaheim. It's fitting that his spot in the rotation will be taken by none other than Brian Baker.

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