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Saturday, September 4, 2010

Gwinnett Braves beat Durham Bulls again: Sobering thoughts

Posted by on Sat, Sep 4, 2010 at 8:43 AM

Durham Bulls pitcher Darin Downs
  • courtesy of Durham Bulls
  • Durham Bulls pitcher Darin Downs
DBAP/ DURHAM—With last night's 6-4 loss to the Gwinnett Braves, the Durham Bulls have lost seven of their last 10 games. It's sort of easy to ignore it, because the Bulls have had record-setting success this season and the recent losses have had no impact on their post-season aspirations; it's been a foregone conclusion, really, since July.

Nonetheless, the team is in a slump, which has allowed the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees to pull within a single game of the Bulls for the best record in the International League. The Bulls aren't hitting well at all—in fact, they're hitting terribly—and the pitching hasn't been all that great either. The bullpen has been particularly shaky, and lost the game last night for the second straight time.

If you want to be optimistic—which on Bulls' fans' behalves I do—you can look at it this way: You want your team to get its doldrums out of the way before the playoffs begin, and then go on another winning streak. So I asked Charlie Montoyo after the game if he was telling himself something like that. His reply? "No. I tell myself that we had a hell of a year and we're struggling here at the end. Eighty-six wins, that's not that easy to do." He did add, perhaps for my benefit, "Everybody's struggling at the same time, so hopefully they'll get hot at the same time."

What's interesting about Montoyo's comment there is the verb tense. We had a hell of a year—not, We're having a hell of a year. Add to that preterit assessment Montoyo's satisfaction with 86 wins—a sentiment he had also expressed after the loss to Charlotte on Monday—and it starts to become clear that the unremittingly day-by-day Montoyo has begun (like his players, perhaps) to circle the wagons for the remainder of the regular season and focus on what follows. An even more revealing comment: "Three more games, and we'll take a bus to Columbus, I guess. Did they win today?" That's the first time in two years of covering the team that I can recall Montoyo asking about the results of other teams' games, or even mentioning anything having to do with the Bulls' future beyond tomorrow.

(The answer, by the way, is no: Columbus lost to Toledo. Meanwhile, Louisville pounded Indianapolis to pull back to within a half game of the Clippers for the West Division title. Right now, it's too close to call where the Bulls will play on Wednesday.)

Fifteen minutes after last night's game, the clubhouse was virtually empty. For all I know, the entire team was headed out to the same bar, but the feeling in there was one of temporary abandonment: The Bulls seem to be simply waiting this one out. That isn't to say they aren't trying to win—they are—but that lately they aren't succeeding is simply sending them home to bide their time until the games start to count. Although this is a pretty professional bunch, you can hardly fault them for easing off the gas pedal. They haven't played a meaningful game in weeks, arguably months. It has been an easy summer full of nuits d'ivresse, the Bulls and their fans drunk on winning.

(I have a bottle of the wine that goes by the same name—in magnum, no less. The 2002 vintage of Breton's Bourgueil Nuits d'Ivresse, which is what I have, is rumored to be drinking beautifully right now. If you buy Heather and me a nice dinner, I could be persuaded to bring it along.)

Nonetheless, last night's ballgame, and some thoughts I had spinning around it, was rather sobering. The morning after, after the jump.

Last night's loss had a bit in common with the one the night before. The Bulls fell behind early, rallied to make a game of it, and then watched the bullpen blow it. Durham starter Richard De Los Santos basically had nothing, which in itself was sobering: he had won his last seven decisions (all of those in a row during a superb July-August stretch), and had not had a poor outing since July 15 against Charlotte.

But last night, his pitches were up, up, up in the strike zone, and De Los Santos allowed eight hits and four runs in 3 2/3 innings. The game's first hitter, Gwinnett's Matt Young, grounded out to third base. The next three had hits, though, the last of these an RBI double by Barbaro Canizares (who was 3-4 with two doubles and a homer). What is remarkable about the first inning, though, is that despite those three straight one-out hits, the inning ended after the third one with no one left on base. That's because Antoan Richardson, who reached on an infield single (the speedy Braves had an astounding six of those little hits last night), tried to go first-to-third on an errant pickoff throw by De Los Santos but was thrown out thanks to a beautiful catch-and-tag by Angel Chavez; and because Canizares, who I guess read my post from yesterday that made mention of his slow-motion, lethargic ways, attempted to stretch his RBI double into a triple and was thrown out, violating the baseball dictum never to make the first or third out of an inning at third base. Chavez, for his part, had a busy inning; later, his night would be cut short.

De Los Santos was marginally better over the next two innings, but he kept falling behind in the count. He threw 31 of his 67 pitches for balls, threw first-pitch balls to 10 of 18 batters, and had six three-ball counts. And in the fourth inning, he walked Canizares to start the frame. He retired the next two hitters, but Luis Bolivar singled to right field. Bolivar went 4-4 last night, but that fourth-inning single was the only one that left the infield; the other three hits were two infield bouncers that found the right seams, and a bunt single. Bolivar is my nominee for the league's most annoying pest; vide this game).

Anyway, the bases were now loaded with two outs, and guess who came up to hit? Dan Nelson, of course! The guy who pretty much won the previous game for Gwinnett, and who had singled off of De Los Santos one inning earlier, stroking a liner to center field. He and De Los Santos engaged in a tough, tense at-bat. De Los Santos fell behind, 2-0, catcher Nevin Ashley trying unsuccessfully to frame the second pitch for the umpire. Then the sequence went: foul to the left-field stands; ball three; foul to the left-field stands again. Nelson was trying to adjust his timing on De Los Santos's two-seam fastball, which he had now thrown down and in twice in a row. But this was not a vintage De Los Santos game. He couldn't command the pitch well enough and was fighting with weak ammo.

I remember hearing once a perhaps apocryphal story about Greg Maddux; it may have been his former teammate, the rather legendary Mark Grace, who told it. Wait, no, actually, here it is on his Wikipedia page! It goes: "[A] former teammate [of Maddux's], outfielder Marquis Grissom, recalled a game in 1996 when Maddux was having trouble with his fastball and was having trouble spotting it. Between innings, Greg told Marquis, 'Gary Sheffield is coming up next inning. I am going to throw him a slider and make him just miss it so he hits it to the warning track.' The at-bat went as Maddux had predicted."

I thought of that story about Maddux as the tension gathered around the upcoming 3-2 pitch to Nelson. There was no question that De Los Santos wasn't going to be able strike out Nelson; there was the lead-pipe certainty that he would throw Nelson a strike, though, and that Nelson would swing; there was the suggestive evidence, with De Los Santos's struggles to that point, that Nelson would hit it hard. And so I found myself thinking, "De Los Santos just wants Nelson to hit it to the warning track."

And De Los Santos nearly succeeded. Nelson drove the 3-2 to just about the deepest part of the ballpark, a bit left of straightaway center field. Justin Ruggiano went back, and back, and back—leaped—and the ball hit off the wall for a bases-clearing, three-run double. De Los Santos was done, lifted for Darin Downs. A sobering night for him: his first bad start in two and a half months.

Is De Los Santos fatigued? He has thrown far more innings this season than he ever has before. His 23 starts shatter his personal season-high of 13, which he set in his first pro season way back in 2001, when he was just 17 years old. And he is the Game One starter for the Bulls in their first playoff series. Now that's a sobering thought.

It was 4-0, Braves, after Nelson's hit. But for the third straight game, the Bulls rallied. Gwinnett starter Brandon Beachy, making just his seventh career Triple-A start (in one of the previous ones, on August 13 at Gwinnett, he beat the Bulls), had shut out Durham for six strong innings, showing a decent 91-92 mph fastball, a nice swerving slider, and a serviceable changeup. (This very detailed scouting report calls the breaking ball a curve, but if that's really what it is, it's got slurvy action.)

But Beachy was done after six innings and 98 pitches, replaced by Michael Broadway, a 23-year-old who made his Triple-A debut in July. Broadway is the lead in this cutesy "color" story about stirrups in baseball, and the Bulls—and Broadway's own teammates—hung him by them in the seventh inning. He struck out two batters and allowed only two legitimately well-struck singles, but there was also an infield hit by Omar Luna and a bleeder off the shortstop's glove into center field by Fernando Perez. Worse, Broadway's catcher, the backup Orlando Mercado, allowed strike three to the swinging Elliot Johnson to skip through his legs for a run-scoring passed ball (Johnson sped to first base), and his right fielder muffed J. J. Furmaniak's single.

Two of the Bulls' four game-tying runs were unearned, and the last one scored on a play that dried up the drunk-on-success Dan Nelson a bit. With runners at the corners, one out, and the score 4-3, Justin Ruggiano grounded an easy double-play ball to Nelson (he had done just that in the first inning, too). Nelson fielded it cleanly, but the ball got stuck in his glove for a moment, and by the time he got it unstuck and threw to second base, it was too late to double up Ruggiano. The tying run scored.

But the Braves took the lead right back, thanks to the first poor performance of Jake McGee's young Triple-A career—another sobering inevitability. "That's the first run he's given up [in Triple-A]," Montoyo later said, equably. "You knew that was gonna happen." There was nothing wrong with McGee's stuff. He threw 30 pitches, 27 of them fastballs—in itself a bit telling—and the only thing wrong with 13 of them was that they were balls. (McGee did, however, add to Dan Nelson's sobriety by striking him out on a high, hard, 96-mph heater.) McGee had walked just one batter in 14 2/3 innings as Bull coming into the game, but he walked two of them in just one inning last night. The second walk forced home a run—with two outs, on a full count, just like De Los Santos four innings earlier—scored by Luis Bolivar, who had reached on an infield single (natch).

And in case the Bulls thought they could keep the party on Broadway roaring—I was a little surprised to see him return for the eighth, even if his failure in the seventh wasn't really his fault—this time he was his own fireman. He gave up a leadoff single to Nevin Ashley—Ashley's second hit as a Bull—but then whiffed Leslie Anderson on three pitches. Anderson didn't swing at a single one of them (and he struck out looking in the seventh against Broadway, too, also on three pitches). Then he got another double-play grounder to third base from Joe Dillon, and this time Dan Nelson made no mistake.

Brian Shouse allowed a ninth-inning insurance run on Barbaro Canizares' leadoff solo homer, an opposite-field fly ball that, on some nights, might have been an out at the DBAP; but last night the wind was blowing out toward right-centerfield, and Canizares had his 13th homer. His 3-4 night, which extended the red-hot Canizares' hitting streak to 11 games (he's batting .432 in that span) pushed his average back up to .342. Not too long ago, it looked like Elliot Johnson might have an outside shot at stealing the International League batting title from Canizares—he was about 15 points behind him on August 10. But anyone getting tipsy on that hope has been given a strong, bitter, sobering ristretto espresso by Canizares' season-ending rampage. Not only that, but with last night's performance, he tied Durham's Chris Richard for the league lead in OPS. And I confess that I, too, feel my loose-jawed bagging on Canizares' lethargy on the basepaths chastened by his hitting.

After the Bulls went quietly and in order in the ninth inning to give the Braves a two-game mini-sweep, Montoyo was calm and philosophical in his office, much more so than he was on Thursday. That was partially because he must have felt relief on learning that Angel Chavez, who had to leave the game after he was hit on the wrist by a Beachy pitch (do not perform a Spoonerism on those words!), just has a bruise and not a break. But it was mostly, I think, that tranquil, sober, end-of-summer stock-taking of work done, as befits the hiatus of Labor Day weekend before the tympani of autumn begin to beat: Montoyo finally seems to be appreciating the immutable and quietly inspiriting accumulation of his team's season-long results, which won him the Manager of the Year award. An 86-54 record says you had a wonderful, potent year, no matter what happens over the last few days, when the next team—the gently and soothingly named Tides—roll in for a final trio of games that are scarcely more than an exhibition and farewell.

***

Another sobering item has been on my mind lately. Last August, Bulls' reliever Darin Downs—then still with Double-A Montgomery—was struck in the head by a line drive. (I recommend that link, by the way; Downs and his wife are quoted liberally in the story, which is well done.) He could easily have died, and was spared by nothing more than the irregular threading of the Fates—had the ball struck him a few inches in either direction from where it did, he might have been instantly killed. As it was, his skull was fractured, yet he never lost consciousness, his skin wasn't broken, and there was neither a lump nor blood. That's because the fracture allowed all the bleeding and pressure to push into Downs's brain, which could also have killed him. Amazingly, he survived, and thanks partially to an autumn of steroids and hormones (legal, medical, prescribed ones; don't go reporting him to George Mitchell!), he was able to recover fairly quickly from the horrific trauma.

Downs told me last night that he feels fine nowadays. The only remaining thing is a slight hitch/hiccup in his speech. The ball struck the part of the head where the brain's speech center is located. For some days after he was hit, he couldn't speak at all, and he said last night that he found himself misspelling words for a while afterward. (He also told me that "everything you hear about steroids is true": He got acne all over his back, and his appetite for food became overwhelming.)

I happened to notice Downs's pregnant wife, Christy, sitting last night in the spot she usually occupies behind home plate. When Downs came in to relieve De Los Santos, she clasped her hands and closed her eyes. I have no idea, of course, if she was praying for Downs's safety or merely for a good outing; her concern grew pretty intense when Downs had two runners on base with less than two outs in both the fifth and seventh innings. (He pitched out of both jams.) But the sight of her intently, anxiously watching her husband's every move out there, from behind the safety of netting that Downs doesn't have protecting him on the field—that sight was a good deal more than sobering; it was one of those rare moments at the ballpark, with its insulated, narrow, one-dimensional, sometimes canned experience, that can widen and complicate and texture one's view of the world. It is encouraging to see that Downs, who struggled badly when he was first called up from Double-A Montgomery in June, seems to have begun to figure out Triple-A competition. His ERA since July 25, covering 14 appearances, is 2.82. Take away an emergency start he was forced to make on August 19 (he allowed four runs in four innings), and it's 1.46.

It was even more heartening, of course, to hear from the affable, candid and courteous Downs that he and his wife are due to have their first child, a girl, around the first of November, and so he's passing on Winter Ball. "Diaper duty," he explained, a happy dad-to-be. Here's wishing the Downses all the ups in the world.

***

A few notes:

* Jake McGee's breaking ball, which is undergoing renovations and will come out a slider in the end, still isn't accomplishing much. He only threw it three times last night in 30 pitches, missed badly with it each time, and no one swung at it. Of note is that the speed of the pitch varied widely. One was 76 mph, another 78, and a third 82. That inconsistency betrays the deeper inconsistency of his delivery of the pitch. To use a beloved example in comparison, Jeremy Hellickson's changeup nearly always clocked 79 mph on the DBAP stadium gun. What that indicates is that he had full repetitive consistency of motion when he threw it. McGee is still, essentially, trying to keep himself from throwing a curveball and struggling to convince his arm to throw a slider instead. It'll be interesting to see what kind of progress he makes in his last few appearances of the year. As for his fastball, which he also couldn't control well last night, the good news was that he mostly missed down in the strike zone—an encouraging sign.

* Charlie Montoyo confirmed that neither Heath Phillips nor Virgil Vasquez, both on the disabled list, will pitch again this season. The starting rotation for the playoffs, then, in order: De Los Santos, Ramon Ortiz, Brian Baker, Aneury Rodriguez, Bobby Livingston. I might have guessed that Livingston would be the fourth (or even third) starter, in order to ensure the presence of a lefty in the rotation, but apparently that's less important to Montoyo than giving the ball to the guys he prefers—especially with four left-handers in the bullpen, which allows him to play matchup games liberally. The surprise (to me, anyway) is that Ortiz rates second place.

* Some parting words about Dan Nelson—who may very well return to Gwinnett and torture the Bulls again next season: Although he went 2-4 last night with the three-run double that was essentially the difference in the game (he also lined out hard to center field in the sixth inning), it was instructive to see him come back down to earth in the later innings. That was natural, of course—he'd been shooting the moon for a game and a half—but some details stuck out that may explain why the apparently world-beating third baseman had never, until his sixth season in pro ball, risen above Class A. One, he told me two nights ago that he used to be a shortstop but made too many errors there (he now plays both third and second base); a quick look at his career stats suggests that he isn't exactly Brooks Robinson at third base, either. Also, Nelson had a demonstrated need for attention on the field. For a guy just called up to Triple-A for the first time, he sure did a lot of hopping up and down at his position, chatting up teammates more than necessary, asking for the ball at the end of plays in the field. I suspect that he is an annoying teammate. And when he came out on the field to play third base in the bottom of the fourth, right after hitting his big double, he made a big show of having something in his eye, apparently, even going so far as to talk to the umpire about it—as though it were somehow Fran Burke's problem. Burke, to all appearances, seemed to suggest to Nelson that his best course of action might be to stop talking, face the plate, and play ball.

That goes double for me. The Bulls' Ramon Ortiz, fresh off his ejection-shortened start on Monday, takes on Norfolk's Zach Britton, who made consecutive starts against the Bulls on August 20 and 25 and performed well both times. Below, I've got some expansive (but pointed) thoughts, which I wrote yesterday, about the postseason awards with which Montoyo, Dan Johnson and Jeremy Hellickson (plus DBAP groundskeeper Scott Strickland) were feted this week. But if you're deplaning here, I'll see you at the DBAP terminal tomorrow at 7:05 p.m.

***

A few remnant musings on the post-season awards the Bulls recently hogged. One, of course, is that the awards do not quite honor the entire season's work, since they are voted on a full week before the regular season ends. Granted that that week probably doesn't change much; but I did note, looking at last year's awards, that Louisville manager Rick Sweet won Manager of the Year, and I can't help but wonder if that's because his team happened to have the league's best record (I should probably check to see if that was true when the votes were cast, but even I am not that obsessive). Do you think, if Scranton/Wilkes-Barre manages to overtake the Bulls for the best record this season, that the voters will have remorse for not having voted for the Yankees' skipper, Dave Miley?

Charlie Montoyo had a great team this season not only in terms of pure personnel but also in how that personnel played this particular season. Dan Johnson had a stupendous year, the best of his career, and rightly won the league MVP award, despite having missed the last month after his promotion to Tampa; Elliot Johnson and Chris Richard put up superb numbers—Johnson improved by leaps to record his best season by far—and Jeremy Hellickson, Winston Abreu and many other players on the roster made this team look, on paper, like a champion right from the get-go, along with early-season contributors Hank Blalock and Ryan Shealy. Add to that the unexpected emergence of players like Richard De Los Santos and Brian Baker, plus the late-season infusions of Leslie Anderson and Jake McGee and help from Tampa demotee Dioner Navarro, and there was every reason to think that the 2010 Durham Bulls—who stayed surprisingly healthy, given their median age (until late-season injuries to three fifths of the starting pitchers)—would have been a disappointment had they not been at or near the top of the league, a shoo-in for the playoffs. Indeed, they were as advertised, scoring the most runs, allowing the fewest, and posting the league's best record to date.

Compare this year's model to the 2009 Taurus, which was plagued by injuries here and in Tampa, which lost its best pitcher (David Price) to the majors via promotion after just a month or so, and saw recessive years from three players expected to perform well and help lead the team as everyday players: John Jaso, Matt Joyce (who was hurt for a while) and Justin Ruggiano. The 2009 team also had generally less exciting personnel playing key roles: You had Ray Sadler, who almost literally could not hit lefties (he was something like 2-45 against them), patrolling the outfield; Calvin Medlock, who in fact did a fine job after his promotion from Montgomery, was nowhere near the arm that some of the 2010 relievers are; starter James Houser was a disaster until the Rays finally released him in late July; Ray Olmedo was one of those sparkplug-type players who in fact wasn't really any good; Jason Childers, who led the team in relief appearances, had a terrific midsummer run for a month or so, but wound up with a middling 4.44 ERA (this year's most used reliever, Joe Bateman, has an ERA of 1.71).

As a partial consequence of the above, Montoyo relied heavily on emergency callups from lower levels, enough to generate a fairly long list of gone-and-goner names: Craig Albernaz (batted under .200), Alex Jamieson (ditto), Brandon Chaves (a punchless shortstop, albeit good at getting on base), Chris Nowak (never really learned how to hit Triple-A pitching), Rashad Eldridge (essentially a stopgap, although he had a few big moments). Montoyo also rode some Independent League retreads and castoffs, guys like Henry Mateo and Matt DeSalvo and Jorge Julio. He was extremely fortunate that Jon Weber had a career year, and so did Winston Abreu—plus, Joe Bateman was a very pleasant surprise, as was Jason Cromer, who was in some ways the staff's most dependable starter. But none of those players was considered anything like a prospect, and many of them aren't even viable Triple-A ballplayers. Albernaz is languishing in Double-A (with an anemic .643 OPS); ditto Eldridge and Nowak, till the latter was released (at his own request, but still); when last seen, Jamieson and Chaves were playing in the Independent Leagues; Jorge Julio and Henry Mateo aren't in the US at all; Houser, who caught on with the Marlins, was demoted for a while to Double-A, where he was shelled; DeSalvo's whereabouts are unknown.

When Hellickson and Desmond Jennings rose up from Class AA last year, they nudged this rather underwhelming, scrappy team over the top. (This year's key Double-A additions, Leslie Anderson and Jake McGee, have not made as deep an impact on the club.) But mainly, it seemed to me, Montoyo found a way last year to fit together all of these disparate misfits, scrubs, injury-bitten veterans (Chris Richard missed substantial time; so did Elliot Johnson and Mitch Talbot; Shawn Riggans was never anything but hurt) and young prospects up from Double-A all the way through September. He even managed to deal with the sudden influx of big-league rehabbers and rejects that swaggered into the clubhouse in August, disinterested parties like Akinori Iwamura and Joe Nelson and Jeff Bennett and Joe Dillon and Fernando Perez. The team finished the season on a 19-5 tear even though, come playoff time, they'd been ravaged again, this time by callups, and had the likes of Rayner Oliveros and Paul Phillips starting elimination games for them.

To unearth a slightly buried lead here, I have little idea how much of a team's success really has to do with the manager. This is not a slight; I just don't exactly know what a Triple-A manager does—or, frankly, what a major-league manager does. And so, consequently, it's hard to articulate exactly what criteria one might use for deciding who wins the Manager of the Year Award. It does seem to me, though, that Montoyo simply had to do more work in 2009, just to keep his Bulls in the field from day to day, than he has had to do this year. Not only was there all that shifting personnel (and its lower quality), but the Bulls played far more close games in 2009 than they will have played in 2010: 91 of their 144 games were decided by three or fewer runs (they went 53-48 in those contests), as opposed to 71 this year (40-31). They played 13 extra-inning games in 2009; eight in 2010. It was a much, much harder year in just about every way. Not only that, Montoyo's son Alex was going through major surgery related to Ebstein's Anomaly, and Montoyo even left the team for a few days to be home with his family. This season, Alex was doing well enough that the Arizona-based Montoyo family spent a substantial chunk of the summer here in Durham.

And for all of that, I thought Montoyo should have won the Manager of the Year award in 2009—I suspect he might have, too, had the voting taken place after the playoffs, which his team won, of course, beating Rick Sweet's league-best Louisville Bats in the first round and then sweeping Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to exact revenge for the 2008 Governor's Cup loss to the Yanks.

To some degree, I can't help wondering if this year's award was granted in partial recognition of Montoyo's 2009 work (including the then-excluded playoff run), and with perhaps some indirect influence from Montoyo's having won two postseason managerial honors (the Mike Coolbaugh Award and Baseball America's Manager of the Year). To my thinking, the 2010 award could just as easily have gone to none other than Rick Sweet, who took an almost laughably young Louisville Bats team, which stumbled terribly at the beginning of the year and was floundering at 36-45 more than halfway through the season, and turned them into a probable playoff team; they are half a game behind Columbus in the West Division, and will almost surely win the wild card if they don't overtake the Clippers. In one stretch, Sweet's team won 32 of 38 games.

One factor is that Sweet won the award in both 2008 and 2009, and in voting like this the wealth tends to get spread around a bit. No International League manager has won three MoY awards in a row, and no one besides Sweet has even won two in a row since 1982. It was time to give it to someone else, and Montoyo was the obvious—and, for his overall, four-year stewardship of the Bulls—deserving choice.

And what about the other awards bestowed on the Bulls? Surely there's no quibbling with the evidence generated by MVP Dan Johnson and MVPitcher Jeremy Hellickson. The only debate is whether the honor should be permitted to go to a player who doesn't spend the whole season in the International League. Personally, I'm fine with it; the minors are a place of transition and promotion for work well done, and you can't fault guys for playing themselves out of the the league and rising to the majors. But if you want to make the argument that value is measured partially in completeness and in enduring, wire-to-wire contribution, what about Richard De Los Santos and Chris Richard? De Los Santos has thrown 30 more innings than Hellickson, and he leads the league in wins—a stat that voters love (too well, but there you go). He's top-ten in the league in ERA, too. For that matter, the Yankees' Ivan Nova, just called up to the big leagues last week, has favorably comparable numbers to both Hellickson and De Los Santos—the same number of starts as De Los Santos, about the same number of innings pitched, 12 wins, and a much lower ERA than De Los Santos, not far off of Hellickson's league-best mark.

And as for Chris Richard, he leads the league's active hitters in OPS, which (for those uninitiated) is a much better gauge of productivity than batting average or peripherals like RBIs. He leads the league in doubles and extra-base hits, is fourth in the league in walks drawn and on-base percentage, and is an excellent first baseman. By season's end, he will have played in nearly 20 games more than Dan Johnson. He has, not incidentally, accomplished all of this at age 36; moreover, he's been the most stalwart of Bulls for four years running. If awards like these sometimes honor longstanding achievement, he's arguably as deserving as Johnson. Just don't tell that to Dan. He might hit you with his trophy.

Bulls groundskeeper Scott Strickland won the Sports Turf Manager of the Year Award. The playing surface at the DBAP looks great this season after a challenging 2009 that saw the grass divoted and scurfed by an unusually damp, sunless summer. Just as I have no idea how to assess a team manager's performance, I am at a loss to know how Strickland won the award, although I'm sure he deserved it. Did the panel watch how straight he drove his lawn mower? Clock how quickly his minions got the tarp down when rain came? Take a sample of his sod and subject it to chemical analysis? How do you decide who is best at battling the mysterious and fickle forces of nature? I'm being a bit facetious here, of course, but it often amazes me how many decisions are made based on evidence that is at best subjective and arbitrary, and sometimes downright abstruse. It's enough to sober you up.

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