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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Durham Bulls edge Norfolk Tides for ninth straight win: Bright prospects

Posted by on Wed, Aug 25, 2010 at 6:00 AM

Richard De Los Santos broke the Bulls Triple-A record for wins in a season
  • photo courtesy of Durham Bulls
  • Richard De Los Santos broke the Bulls' Triple-A record for wins in a season
DBAP/ DURHAM—During their most recent homestand, a distant memory that ended way back on August 12 when we were still deep in the grip of summer, the Bulls won five games and lost two; that put to rest any nagging (and, frankly, silly) worries that they might not win the International League South Division for the fourth year in a row. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo called the August 12 victory over Charlotte the team's biggest of the year, and it was fairly easy to guess why: It was the game that finally seemed to ease Montoyo's own anxieties and allow him to decide that he really didn't need to worry any more about the remainder of the regular season. All the Bulls had to do for the last 25 games, which they entered with a 15-game division lead, was avoid a total, catastrophic collapse.

So it was natural to assume that the Bulls might go into a little slump on the 11-day, 12-game road trip that followed the biggest win of the year, and that's essentially what I did, encouraging readers to imagine that the team would go something like 4-8 on a three-city tour of their division "rivals" (a designation that exists only in theory this season) Charlotte, Gwinnett and Norfolk.

Well, that was really super-prescient of me, because the Bulls proceeded to win nine of the 12 games they played, including the final eight in a row, not only clinching the division with three weeks to go in the season but pushing their record close to historic levels. They beat their opponents in slugfests (8-7, 9-8) and pitching duels (1-0, 3-1). They won easy ones and hard ones. Their airtight fielding suddenly sprung leaks, committing a bunch of errors, and they won anyway. They lost three starting pitchers to the disabled list—Carlos Hernandez (again, shoulder), Heath Phillips (forearm) and Virgil Vasquez (knee)—and won without them. Their bullpen was thinned by callups and by the emergency removal of Darin Downs to the starting rotation for a day; they won anyway. Joe Dillon had to go back onto the disabled list and that meant more Omar Luna, the improbable wonder who continued to hit around .300. Rocco Baldelli returned from the dead and homered. The Bulls even had to play a rare (because unusually long) five-game series at Norfolk to conclude the 12-game trip, and won all five games, which is extraordinarily hard to do.

And so last night, the Bulls came home and beat Norfolk for a sixth straight time. Their division lead is now 19 games.

The score? 1-0, again. The Bulls lead the International League in shutouts. With the win, they matched one impressive team record and broke another individual one: Durham equaled its Triple-A franchise mark for regular-season wins (83), set in 1999; and starting pitcher Richard De Los Santos broke the club's Class AAA record for wins, earning his 14th with 6 2/3 innings of shutout ball. When Charlie Montoyo emerged from the dugout in the seventh to lift De Los Santos, who was sitting at a modest 87 pitches at that point, the reason he gave was, under the record-breaking circumstances, quite fitting: "I gotta take you out," Montoyo said to De Los Santos. "You're a prospect now."

Once again, Richard De Los Santos had nothing new to tell us about his scoreless work last night. "Two-seam fastball," he said when asked what was working for him (also changeup). He added yet another pickoff, too; he must be near the league lead in that stat (I can't find it anywhere, though). He threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of 27 batters. Only six at-bats used up more than four pitches. He produced just six swings-and-misses, but he didn't need them. The moribund Norfolk Tides dutifully swung early in the count and hit balls right at people, generally not very hard (and they have the bad-team curse—their hard-hit grounders tended to find infielders).

When Norfolk went bidding for hits and runs, they didn't do it very thoroughly: They were 0-10 with runners in scoring position. And the Bulls made good plays in the field, too, to offset a couple of errors. The emblem was a fun-filled second-inning sequence: With Nolan Reimold on first base, Lou Montanez hit a tailing liner to right field, fading toward the line. Justin Ruggiano made an attractive, aggressive dive for the ball, one he would have been better not to attempt: He had no chance of catching it. It bounced past him, untouched, toward the wall. But Ruggiano sprang up, chased it down, and made a good relay throw to Omar Luna, playing second base last night instead of his usual shortstop. Reimold, meanwhile, had been waved around third base. Luna's throw home was up the third-base line, but Dioner Navarro made an impressive, train-approaching, dexterous grab of the low throw just as Reimold arrived, tagging him out in one fluid motion.

No one could have known then that it would be a game-saving play, but the Bulls' lone run—which scored in the fourth inning on a sacrifice fly by, of course, Navarro, plating, of course, Ruggiano (who had in the interim atoned for his misconceived dive by making another one in the third and robbing Robert Andino of a hit)—was the only run they'd need. The game was over in less than 2:30.

I had a long talk with Brian Baker after the game, and although it was off the record I doubt he'd mind my repeating the sentiment he expressed that when things are going really well for a team, all that high fortune has a way of gathering momentum and breadth and bestowing it on everyone. This is a very happy pasture right about now, and everything seems to find a way to work in the Bulls' favor. They committed two more errors last night, but the pitching staff worked around them. Fernando Perez's harmless chopper toward the shortstop hole became a double when it eluded the third baseman and ticked off the shortstop's glove in to shallow left field: Perez used his speed (and Tides' left fielder Reimold's nonchalance) to zip into second—and it would up not mattering that he was called out a few innings later attempting to steal second, even though he appeared to slide in safely. (Perez told me, by the way, that his shoulder feels much, much better since resting it on the disabled list. By the way, if you haven't seen it, check out this meaty, thought-provoking interview Triangle Offense recently did with him.)

More: Luna made a throwing error last night, and he could have easily made a fielding gaffe, too; but after he mishandled Michael Aubrey's easy third-inning grounder, the ball bounced compliantly right toward his bare hand, as if magnetized; he grabbed it and threw Aubrey out. (Luna just missed his first homer, too: he ripped a ball deep but foul in the fourth inning.) Two Bulls were hit by pitches, consecutively—Chris Richard and Rocco Baldelli in the fourth inning—but neither player was hurt and the two extra baserunners pushed Ruggiano to third and enabled Navarro's game-deciding sacrifice fly. Norfolk starter Troy Patton, who has struggled against the Bulls almost every time he's faced them (this was his fourth bloody Bullfight of the season), finally turned in a good performance against them, allowing just a run on four hits in 6 1/3 innings—but he lost anyway.

And that's how it is in Norfolk these days. Whatever the issue, whatever the scenario, whoever the players, the Bulls win anyway and the Tides lose anyway. Norfolk has hard-throwing relievers who keep coughing up leads. They have some good hitters, but not enough of them, or perhaps they just aren't consistent: One of them, a familiar fellow by the name of Rhyne Hughes, struck out four times last night. He, along with some of his teammates, grumbled plenty about Jon Merry's rather voluminous strike zone. (The Bulls, also subject to it, did not.) Five of the last six Tides to come to the plate struck out against Jake McGee and Winston Abreu, who notched his 21st save.

(n.b. Abreu has the demeanor and recent track record of a veteran late-inning fireman, but in fact he is new to the job, which makes his success in it so noteworthy: He has eclipsed a career-high 15 saves set last season, and before that had just 16 total in his entire 15-year career. Since last season, he has struck out 155 batters in 101 2/3 innings, squeezing in surgery for an aneurysm in his pitching arm in between campaigns. He still throws 93 mph. His star seems, somehow, to be still rising at age 33 and in his 15th professional season.)

In June Norfolk manager Gary Allenson was summoned to Baltimore as a third-base coach in the wake of Dave Trembley's firing, and his replacement, Bobby Dickerson, has done little better. The Tides have had a five-game losing streak and a six-game losing streak since August 3. (The Bulls, by remarkable contrast, have had an 11-game winning streak, tying a franchise record, and now a nine-gamer since July 21.) According to reports from Virginia (H/T to Chris Wise at WDBB for digging this up), Dickerson tried, after the Tides' Monday afternoon loss to the Bulls, to jump-start his team with an hour-long, closed-door clubhouse meeting. The next day in Durham they lost again. If the Bulls win on Wednesday, people will be searching the International League annals for the last time one team beat another seven straight times. If it has ever happened before, it was probably due to a bridge capture during the Civil War that prevented the two teams from traveling onward to the next ballpark.

Not long ago—right after the Bulls' last home game, in fact, that so-called "biggest win of the year"—I quoted poet Donald Hall's description of "the lightness [and] resiliency that you can see rising like an aura from the bodies of winning ballplayers." That fit the Bulls then, and it is even fitter now. The team has bounce, poise, humor, coolness; waiting at the plate while umpire Merry gave Troy Patton a mini-lecture after Patton hit Richard, Rocco Baldelli leaned dashingly on his bat, like it was a cane and he was Gene Kelly. Elliot Johnson was smooth and sure at shortstop; Navarro framed De Los Santos's outside pitches with great panache, stylishly undulating his shoulders and elbows around the ball in an effort to get favorable calls. The Bulls even popped right up after they got caught stealing in both of their attempts, even though they may have been safe each time. They horsed around in the clubhouse after the game.

They even engaged in a little healthy imitation. Late in a close game against Syracuse in July, the Bulls trailed by a run and Justin Ruggiano came to the plate against the 40-year-old Chiefs' reliever Ron Villone. Elliot Johnson was on first base, and Villone threw over four times to keep Johnson out of scoring position. The crowd booed lustily, as they always do in this situation. Villone, of course, knew they would, but it wasn't the fans whose heads he was trying to get into; it was Ruggiano's. Indeed, Ruggiano said later that Villone's repeated throws to first base got him out of his routine and rhythm in the batter's box; so when Villone finally delivered a pitch, Ruggiano didn't bother trying to swing—he bunted instead, surprising everyone and reaching first with a single. The Bulls would go on to win the game.

So what did Elliot Johnson do last night when he came to the plate with Desmond Jennings on first base and Troy Patton throwing over there three times and the crowd heartily booing Patton? Johnson bunted up the third base line for a hit, not even drawing a throw to first base. Hey, good idea, Roodge.

Enjoy this while it lasts. These good times could endure all the way until the end of the season and through another trophy-winning post-season, or they could fade tomorrow. The law of averages suggests that the Bulls will regress, and if that happens then its untimeliness could cost the Bulls a repeat championship. On the other hand, major-league rosters expand in a week, and so the Bulls as we know them (and we don't even know some of them very well yet: Mr. Livingston, I presume?) may get another rejiggering, as their opponents may too. I will, however, hazard the guess that the Tampa Bay Rays, to the delight of Bulls fans, won't call up many Triple-A reinforcements: For one thing, the additional personnel costs money, and the Rays, despite recent reports of their healthy solvency, don't have much of that to throw at extraneous bench players; for another, Rays' manager Joe Maddon is known to be especially attuned to the chemistry in his clubhouse, and he probably won't want a herd of young Bulls in the Tampa china shop during the fragile days of the pennant drive. My guesses: Either Desmond Jennings or Fernando Perez for their speed (but probably not both), Jake McGee for his lefty power arm out of the bullpen, and Dioner Navarro for the insurance of a third catcher. Maybe Mike Ekstrom or Dale Thayer; probably not both. In other words, fortunes rise and fall, luck comes and goes, and injury is never far away; but prospects here remain bright. That seems like the appropriate hue for an iconic team in a city just named No. 1 in the country for home investment; for these chrysalis late-August days, when the heavy, swollen integument of summer begins to break, and when wide-eyed freshmen stream timorously onto Duke's east campus; for percolating, confident, bullish times in the Bull City. If the team goes 7-6 over these final two weeks, they'll break the Durham Bulls' all-time record for victories in a single season.

***

See you tonight at the DBAP. Thirty-seven-year-old Ramon Ortiz, who pitched well in his first and only start for Durham, faces another bright prospect: the Tides' 22-year-old lefty, Zach Britton. It's a rematch of Friday's game in Norfolk, in which both of them pitched well. Guess whose team won?

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