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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Slumping Durham Bulls begin homestand with another loss to Columbus Clippers

Posted by on Tue, Jul 20, 2010 at 6:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—When a team hits a slump, it generally isn't for just one reason, and no one wants to point fingers or make excuses. Asked an inevitable question, Jeremy Hellickson answered that no, his two-week break from pitching in anything but an exhibition (the Futures Game, part of the All-Star break pageant), for just two innings, had nothing to do with his poor outing last night. Nor was he interested in laying much blame on the toaster-sized strike zone of home plate umpire Derek Crabill, which helped along Hellickson's five-walk performance in a stint that lasted only 3 1/3 innings. Asked what he would do in order to pull his team out of its doldrums, manager Charlie Montoyo was quick to tell us that he wasn't planning on throwing chairs or yelling at his veteran team, which probably wouldn't take too well to being treated like disappointing children anyway. None of the Bulls' hitters agreed that having to wait out an interminable fourth inning, during which Hellickson and Dale Thayer threw 63 pitches (!), walked five men and gave up five runs on a sticky night at the ballpark, had anything to do with the lineup's failure to get another hit until the bottom of the seventh inning.

But anyone can see that there are causes and effects there, without question. The Bulls need a shakeup after losing to the Columbus Clippers, 8-3 last night, the fifth loss in their last six games. The tight strike zone was certainly a problem. Hellickson used up 46 pitches to get through the first two innings after his hiatus, and barely half of those pitches were strikes. The hitters looked overmatched again, this time by yet another guy with ho-hum stuff and a 5.61 ERA—and whom they hammered for 10 hits and eight runs back on May 14 in Columbus. Two of their runs scored on a flyball homer by Justin Ruggiano that got up in the air and somehow sailed over the Blue Monster. It was a surprise to glance at the scoreboard in the bottom of the fifth inning and see that Durham was still well in the game, only three runs down—the game seemed like it was over after the disastrous fourth inning, when Hellickson and Thayer, squeezed by Crabill, got burned for five runs, the big blow a three-run double by Jordan Brown on an 0-2 pitch, one that Thayer left out over the plate. That made it 6-3, and for the third straight game, the Bulls failed to score after the fourth inning.

Some thoughts on the Bulls' July retreat follow.

The Bulls' current slide feels ugly but isn't the team's worst stretch of the year. From April 26 - May 20, Durham went 9-15, with two four-game losing streaks and a five-game losing streak. Going 1-5 is comparatively harmless because the slump is (so far) rather short; but it seems worse than the earlier run, because that 9-15 spring slumber included a pair of four-game winning streaks, and the Bulls' division lead shrunk by only two games in that 24-game stagger.

But with second-place Charlotte playing better now than they were back then (although they lost last night and remain seven games behind Durham); with the Bulls' starting pitching looking haggard and shaky; with the lowering heat of the summer quickening player fatigue; and with the stretch drive really just a couple of weeks away, there is a greater sense of worry than there was back in the season's early going. Chances are pretty good that the Bulls will play at least .500 ball from here on out; and also good that, if they do that, they'll win the division. But how long will the losing go on before the players deem it unacceptable? How was it that the potent, bullying Bulls looked so meek and feckless last night, unable to get calls on pitches at the strike zone's edge, unable to mount threats, unable to field easy ground balls (a Chris Richard goof opened the door on Columbus's big inning), unable to keep the speedy Fernando Perez from getting thrown out trying to steal second base—unable even to get Wool E. Bull to aim his "t-shirt launcher" properly? And who in the DBAP control booth had the bright idea to go to the "Lays Happy Cam" in the middle of the eighth inning, by which time the Bulls were trudging toward the glum finish of a dull game that lasted exactly as long as an epic American classic that you could have been watching just a few blocks away, and the remaining brace of fans were looking well short of happy?

Perhaps the most telling moment of the game came in the bottom of the fourth inning,when the Bulls finally came to bat trying to offset some of the damage done in the top half against Hellickson and Thayer. With one out, the 26-year-old Clippers' starter Yohan Pino (who improved to 8-5 despite his puffy ERA) threw a pitch up near Angel Chavez's front shoulder. Chavez leaped out of the way—it very nearly grazed him—and then stalked a few paces up the third-base line, looking out at Pino. But the stare of displeasure didn't work: Pino jawed right back at Chavez, gesturing with come-out-here-and-try-me machismo. Chavez stepped back into the box. He eventually walked, winning the battle; but Pino had controlled the theater of the war. He brought the attitude; he shut Chavez up; he commanded the mood of the at-bat. And he retired the last six men he faced, walking only two batters in six innings total. Hellickson and Thayer walked five in the fourth inning alone. Sure, Crabill's strike zone hurt them, but it didn't hurt Pino. The Bulls walked 12 Clippers; the Clippers walked two Bulls. That's no umpiring fluke.

Hellickson had a weird outing. His curveball was sharp and his fastball had good life, but he had trouble controlling the latter. He threw only one cut-fastball; he doesn't like to throw it when he's behind hitters, because it's a pitch he wants them to swing at, which they're less likely to do in a hitter's count. Hellickson got burned for a second-inning solo homer by Nick Weglarz, a highly regarded prospect in the Indians' system, and Jared Goedert tagged a double into the left-centerfield gap in the third; but otherwise, Hellickson's only real issue was walks. His whiff rate was very high— a whopping 17 swings-and-misses in 91 pitches, against a team with the fewest strikeouts in the International League—and he fanned six in his first three innings. So there are reasons to believe him when he said that he felt good on the mound. But the fact was—and Charlie Montoyo corroborated this later—that Hellickson just wasn't effective last night.

And because Dale Thayer needed 32 pitches of his own to get out of the Crabill-controlled fourth, Montoyo had to reach deep into the bullpen again. Enter Darin Downs, who in two innings walked four men of his own, needing no help from Crabill to issue the free passes, and gave up two more runs in the sixth to put the game more or less totally to bed. Downs's ERA is up to 8.49 over nine appearances for Durham. He has a wonderful strikeout rate—18 in 11 2/3 innings—and his groundball/flyball ratio is a pretty-good 1.67/1. But he has also allowed 17 hits and 10 walks in those 11 2/3 innings pitched, which translates to a .347 batting-average-against, a WHIP well over 2.00, and the words "back to Mongtomery, buddy."

But perhaps not so fast. Carlos Hernandez made his exit from the roster before anyone could do anything about Downs's; Hernandez went back on the disabled list today with more hip problems, which perhaps stemmed from an awkward fielding play at first base in Charlotte on Sunday (for a moment it seemed like he might come out of the game in the fourth inning). Someone has to start for Durham on Friday, and right now that someone seems likeliest to be Aneury Rodriguez. That means a thinner bullpen; that means Downs is probably staying up—unless the Rays want to give a Triple-A audition to Jake McGee or Alexander Torres, both of whom have had very good seasons so far in the Montgomery starting rotation. (While we're at it, when do we get to see the intriguing Cuban defector Leslie Anderson, who seems to be finding his stroke in Double-A lately, with a .462 on-base percentage over his last 10 games?)

Well, as anyone could tell you, if they'd be so great in Triple-A, then why are they still in Double-A looking up? There's no miracle cure for a team-wide contagion. But Charlie Montoyo did mention one remedy for curing (or perhaps worsening) the malady, and you hear just about every ballplayer utter some variation on these square-cut words of Montoyo's after Monday's loss: "It's all about pitching." The midsummer-meltdown Sitting Bulls send the erratic Richard De Los Santos to the mound on Tuesday against the Clippers' Carlos Carrasco, whom they beat in mid-May, the day after they bested Yohan Pino. Columbus wore red last night; if they do it again tonight, will the Bulls finally charge?

***

A final, and unsettling, piece of news. As you may have heard, the beloved former Bull Jon Weber unexpectedly announced his retirement a few days ago, quitting the Toledo Mud Hens in midseason and leaving many folks scratching their heads. Had the ebullient Weber suddenly lost interest in the game? Were the Mud Hens going to release him? Did he have a coaching job lined up somewhere? Did he just miss his wife and children?

Last night, news broke that Weber had tested positive for a "drug of abuse," the third such violation of his career, which landed him a 100-game suspension. Immediate speculation began that Weber knew, of course, what the test results were, and simply decided to quit before the suspension was implemented. Drugs of abuse are recreational rather than performance-enhancing substances. There are seven of them, according to the Major League Baseball Joint Drug Agreement: cocaine, LSD, marijuana, opiates (e.g., heroin, codeine, morphine), MDMA (Ecstasy), GHB (aka "liquid Ecstasy"), and phencyclidine (PCP). No word on which of these Weber had in his system, and it doesn't really matter. It just feels bad to hear the news, especially during the Bulls' July slump, if for no other reason than that Weber's retirement and suspension have quelled any hope that the effusive, clutch-hitting, mood-brightening outfielder might return to Durham and jolt the team out of its funk. Instead, they'll have to find their own clutch to pop.

See you at the DBAP at 7:05 PM. If you bring a friend, or even a stranger, you can get two tickets for the price of one. Given the way the Bulls have been playing lately, the discount seems just about right.

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