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Friday, September 17, 2010

Durham Bulls win in 9th to prolong Governors' Cup championship series against Columbus Clippers

Posted by on Fri, Sep 17, 2010 at 6:00 AM

Durhams Rashad Eldridge runs the bases in the Bulls Game Three win.
  • Photo by D. L. Anderson
  • Durham's Rashad Eldridge runs the bases in the Bulls' Game Three win.
DBAP/ DURHAM—The running of the Bulls is running on fumes. The team has had just two days off since August 9, and both of those days were consumed by bus rides that lasted longer than 10 hours. There are players with sore backs from those rides—worse, one of those sore backs, property of the Bulls' Game Three starter, Alex Cobb, forced him from last night's game early. That was not the result of the back itself, but of a secondary effect: Cobb soaked in a hot tub to ease the back stiffness, didn't know to keep his hands out of the tub, got softened, pruney finger skin as a consequence, and that made him prone to a blister. He got one on the middle finger of his throwing hand. Four innings, done.

Not that he was going to last much longer than that, anyway. Cobb had needed 82 pitches to get through those four innings, in each of which the leadoff man reached base. In the first three, there was a man on third base. In all of those, Cobb made the pitch he needed to make and escaped the inning. Cobb worked nine three-ball counts to the 17 men he faced, including seven full counts. The Clippers swung at only 32 of his 82 pitches. His fastball command was erratic, and he had to bail himself out with his curveball a few times. The strike zone of the rather martial home plate umpire Jon Merry was unforgivingly small.

"They were a hard 82," Charlie Montoyo said of Cobb's pitches after the game, which was also hard: close but uncomfortably quiet, with a sort of blank, suppressed energy until the ninth inning. Yet when Cobb left, it was somehow still a scoreless game, despite his labors on the mound. Cobb turned matters over to the Bulls' front-line relievers, who were rested. R. J. Swindle had actually already been warming up in the bullpen during the fourth inning, when Cobb walked the leadoff man and then made a bad pickoff throw to advance him to second base. Cobb got out of that inning, but after making some warmup pitches before the fifth, he called out the trainer to look at his blistered finger, and he was done before throwing a pitch.

After Swindle tossed a 1-2-3, two-strikeout top of the fifth inning, the Bulls scored two runs in the bottom of the inning, one of them unearned thanks to a fielding error by Clippers center fielder Ezequiel Carrera that was a virtual repeat of the ruinous gaffe made by Louisville's Todd Frazier in Game Five of the first round.

But in the top of the sixth, Swindle gave up a long home run to Columbus' potent first baseman, Wes Hodges. And Joe Bateman, after tossing his own 1-2-3, two-strikeout introductory inning, coughed up the tying run in the eighth: In the span of three pitches, Cord Phelps boomed a double to left-center field, and Hodges struck again by drilling a single off the Blue Monster to score Phelps.

At that point, it looked like the Bulls—who somehow seemed to be losing the game virtually from the beginning, even though they scored first—might decide that they could snort and charge no more in 2010. They had fought hard against Louisville just to get to the championship series, and then were trounced in Game One at Columbus and shut out in Game Two—and then took another grueling, overnight bus ride, arriving in Durham at 6:30 a.m. Thursday morning.

And then the Bulls won the game, 3-2. This exhausted team lives to play another day, whether they want to—despite themselves—or not.

Oh, that Yohan Pino. The Columbus starter did not, even by optimistic measures, have a good year, unless you are one of those people who thinks that win-count means all that much. Yes, he was 10-9, but his 5.75 ERA was third-highest in the International League. He allowed 175 hits and 25 home runs in 145 2/3 innings. He was fortunate to get solid run support (5.5/game) and great relief (a bullpen ERA of 1.62 in his starts, without a blown save). He faced the Bulls twice this season, getting bombed in Columbus back on May 14, then pitching better at the DBAP, going six innings and allowing three runs to win on July 19. (Pino was much, much better on the road than at home this year.) In that victory, he got into a little macho bickering with Angel Chavez after he hit Chavez with a pitch and the Bulls' third baseman expressed his displeasure.

And so Chavez exacted a measure of revenge, doubling down the third-base line in the fifth inning of a scoreless game. The next batter, Rashad Eldridge, lined the first pitch he saw from Pino into center field for a base hit. Chavez, who doesn't run especially well, was waved home—and that's when center fielder Ezequiel Carrera let the ball go right under his glove. It rolled all the way to wall. Chavez scored, of course, and Eldridge steamed into third base.

Eldridge was in the lineup only because of what Montoyo later called a hunch—not, as it seemed, because of a deliberate effort to load the lineup with extra left-handed bats against the right-hander Pino. (Switch-hitter Jose Lobaton played, too.) It was a bit of an unorthodox move, despite the lefty-righty advantage—which Montoyo claimed he wasn't playing anyway—because it meant the benching of Joe Dillon and his veteran know-how at the plate. There is a reason that the 28-year-old Eldridge spends most of his time in Double-A: He simply hasn't played his way up from that level.

Shows what I (don't) know, and what managers do: Eldridge's single gave the Bulls their first lead of the series, and the extra dose of luck in the form of Carrera's fielding error moved him to third base. When Fernando Perez followed that with a well-hit sacrifice fly to right to make it 2-0—the Bulls scored two runs in a span of four pitches—that looked like it might be enough.

But then Swindle and Bateman let those two runs trickle in, and meanwhile the Bulls lineup was swinging like they were ready to go home. Over his last four innings of work, which included the Bulls' two-run fifth, Pino cruised by on just 30 pitches. For a team that was so good all season at working deep, deep counts and driving opposing starters from games early, it was a shock to see the Bulls dutifully taking their cuts like schoolboys holding out their bowls in the cafeteria queue. They swung and missed at only two of Pino's 81 pitches, a sign perhaps that they weren't really fooled by him, they just weren't battling him very hard. (Montoyo said later that he thought his team was tired. It certainly looked that way.) After Eldridge's fifth-inning single, the Bulls did not have another baserunner off of Pino—who, let's not forget, in all fairness, was coming off of a superb performance in the first round of the playoffs at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, in which he allowed the first two runners of the game to reach base, picked one of them off, and retired the next 20 in order. He won that one, 1-0. Obviously he is a pitcher with some potential. Whether the 26-year-old harnesses it is a question the Cleveland Indians will surely like to see answered.

One thing the Bulls surely liked to see was a new pitcher on the mound for Columbus in the bottom of the ninth inning. That's not so much because it was Josh Judy, who was a durable setup man for Columbus all season since his mid-May callup from Double-A Akron. He had thrown 4 2/3 one-hit, scoreless relief innings against the Bulls this year.

Nonetheless, he wasn't Yohan Pino. And at this point, the road-weary Bulls probably wanted extra innings less than just about anything in the world, except another bus ride. Elliot Johnson, struggling in the post-season with just six singles and three walks in 34 plate appearances to that point, worked out a leadoff walk off of Judy. He fouled off some pitches down in the zone (or maybe just below it) before coaxing the free pass. This was the patience the Bulls were known for this year, and Johnson finally remembered that on behalf of his teammates.

It seemed to be the thing Durham needed. Justin Ruggiano took Judy to a 2-2 count before punching an opposite-field single to right, moving Johnson to third base. Columbus made the tactically correct decision to walk Chris Richard, loading the bases and setting up a force at home.

And when Leslie Anderson swung anxiously and fouled off the first two pitches he saw from Judy, quickly nearing a strikeout—and with the slow-running, double-play prone catcher Jose Lobaton on deck—you could see how the Bulls might fail to score the winning run in this ripe situation. They had choked with the bases F.O.B. and no outs a few times earlier this year.

But what was fresher in the mind was the last day of the regular season—astonishingly, that was just 10 days ago, although it seems much, much longer. In that game, the Bulls also lost a two-run lead late; and in that game, Anderson later came to the plate (much later, the bottom of the 12th inning) with no one out after an intentional walk loaded the bases. Sound familiar? Anderson responded by singling to right field to win the game ending the Bulls' regular season in high and hopeful style.

And with the count 0-2, Anderson hit a solid line drive to shallow center field. Carrera was playing there, and he caught the ball almost right where he stood. Going for the win, Montoyo sent Elliot Johnson homeward, and Carrera's throw had too much rainbow action—perhaps he was almost too shallow, because he had no forward momentum when he caught it, and so he couldn't put much force into the throw. Johnson beat the throw by a step, and in any case catcher Luke Carlin couldn't field it cleanly; and Anderson's teammates, just like they did when he won the Labor Day finale, merrily chased him down around second base.

So the Bulls still rule the pasture, for at least one more day.

***

"We know we're gonna have to score more than [three runs] to beat that club again," Charlie Montoyo said after the game. So far in this series, Durham has gotten a meaningless, garbage-time grand slam from Justin Ruggiano (in the 18-5 Game One blowout) and just four other runs, two of which were unearned. They had only four hits last night against Pino and Judy. Since August 31, when the Rays made their last callups of position players (Desmond Jennings, Jose Lobaton—now back with the team—and Dioner Navarro), the Bulls' run production has tailed off noticeably. To that point, they were averaging 5.3 runs per game, tops in the league. Since then, they have managed about 4.5. That may not sound like a precipitous dropoff, but 4.5 runs per game would put them near the bottom of league over a full season.

So whether Montoyo plays some hunches again, or whether he goes with the same lineup—since that lineup did something no other had done in this series, win a game—it seems unlikely that the Bulls are going to win another Governor's Cup with just three runs a game. The Columbus starters are better than Louisville's were; but on the other hand, both Pino and the Game Two starter, Zach McAllister, who blanked the Bulls for seven innings, had terrible years. Sure, you'd rather have them starting post-season games for you than the Bats' Tom Cochran and Jeremy Horst, but they're not world-beaters.

On Friday, the Clippers send Paolo Espino to the mound. It's probable that no Bull has ever faced Espino. He was called up from Double-A Akron in early August, after the Bulls last played Columbus, and struggled in seven Triple-A starts. He allowed seven home runs in only 41 2/3 regular-season innings. (By contrast, the Bulls' Richard De Los Santos, for example, allowed just six in 148 1/3 innings.) Espino gave up 13 homers in 101 innings in Double-A prior to that, so keeping the ball in the yard is clearly a challenge for him. Still, it is hard to predict whether he or Durham has the advantage here. It's often hard to solve a pitcher the first time you face him, even a homer-prone one; but at the same time, Espino is only 23, and although he pitched well against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the decisive Game Four of the Clippers' first-round playoff series, Columbus had scored 10 runs by the fourth inning of that game, essentially taking the life out of the Yankees' lineup (and season) and allowing Espino to just rear back and throw.

As dangerous as the Clippers' lineup is, there is certainly reason to expect them to score more than two runs on Friday night. That's not only because Montoyo burned through his two most trusted setup men, Bateman and Swindle—and did the same with Mike Ekstrom for three innings on Wednesday—but also because the Bulls' starter is Paul Phillips. Phillips, just called up at the end of the season for the Bulls, did a fine job in two long-form appearances for Durham, but one was in that Labor-Day, Leslie Anderson-won season finale against a Norfolk team that had long stopped caring; the other was a five-inning shutout stint against the free-swinging Louisville Bats, who made Phillips's rather ordinary two-pitch arsenal look better than it probably is. He pitches up in the strike zone a bit more than is probably healthy, especially against a patient, smart-hitting team like Columbus. Like Rashad Eldridge, there is a reason Philiips has spent most of the last two seasons in Class AA, called up to Durham only when late-season roster reinforcements have become necessary.

Even if Phillips does pitch well—and the upbeat, burly righty was all loose and "Let's roll" again in the clubhouse—he is unlikely to last more than five innings because his pitch limit is about 80. Dale Thayer is fresh, as are lefties Darin Downs and Brian Shouse—but the latter two gave up 10 runs in four innings on Tuesday. Maybe there is some way to transfer Alex Cobb to the Hudson Valley fake-roster or something and activate Dane De La Rosa, who is still traveling with the team. (De La Rosa was, by one account, actually going to be added to the Bulls' roster following Jake McGee's callup before the decision was made instead to option Ekstrom from Tampa). But that could be construed as dubious sportsmanship, and we are apparently oversensitive to that lately (oh, give me a break!).

Somewhat reassuring news is that Winston Abreu, who struck out the side in the ninth inning last night to earn the win for Durham, only had to throw that one frame—had the game gone to extra innings, Abreu would have pitched the 10th, making him unavailable, probably, for Friday. But because Abreu only had to throw 16 pitches, he should be available in a save situation. Charlie Montoyo is probably hoping, though, that the Bulls bomb Paolo Espino and coast to a Game Four win. That would repeat the previous series, when the Bulls, down two games to one after an edgy, tense, one-run Game Three (they lost that one), ripped Bats starter Ben Jukich for eight runs in four innings in Game Four. Given that the Bulls are trying to repeat as International League champions, you could forgive them for hoping that other things will repeat, too.

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