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Friday, April 15, 2011

Alex Cobb, Durham Bulls blank Norfolk Tides in home opener

Posted by on Fri, Apr 15, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Durham Bulls pitcher Alex Cobb in action, April 14, 2011
  • Photo by Al Drago
  • Durham Bulls pitcher Alex Cobb in action, April 14, 2011
DBAP/ DURHAM—Last season, Alex Cobb was called up to Durham from Class AA Montgomery just as the International League playoffs were starting, after a strong year with the Biscuits. He made two starts for the Bulls in those waning days of the 2010 season. In the first of them, against the Louisville Bats, he threw five no-hit innings to start the game. He wound allowing just three hits in 6 2/3 innings, and struck out 10 batters. Cobb made one mistake, leaving a fastball up and on the inner half of the plate to Todd Frazier, who clubbed a two-run homer. Cobb took the loss in a 2-1 final.

And in his first start at the DBAP in 2011, Cobb began with three no-hit innings—perfect ones, in fact. He wound up allowing three hits, just as he did against Louisville in 2010, and he struck out 10 Norfolk Tides, the same number of Ks he had against the Bats. This time, he went six innings, removed after 82 pitches, right around the current early-season limit imposed by the Tampa Bay Rays. (Coincidentally, he also threw 82 pitches in his second and final start for the Bulls last year, a difficult and blister-shortened but nonetheless scoreless four-inning stint against the Columbus Clippers in Game Three of the Governors Cup Championship series.)

The difference? This time, Cobb made no mistakes; or if he did, they went unpunished. He and two relievers, Mike Ekstrom and Brandon Gomes, shut out the Norfolk Tides, 4-0. The Bulls improved to 5-3; Norfolk fell to a glum 1-7 for the season so far. In support, new Durham third baseman Russ Canzler hit a solo homer, his second dinger in two days, in the sixth inning, an impressive opposite-field drive to right-center field; and the Bulls clawed at Tides starter Rick VandenHurk, who took the loss, for three additional runs early on in this deceptively quick game, which was rather dull once Cobb left but only took just over two hours to play. It had the feel of a solid early-season win, a sort of still-in-beta performance for a team that hasn't really found its bearings yet; they arrived in Durham after Spring Training in Florida just a couple of days before the season began, and then immediately left for a week-long road trip. And they have already had to adjust to a fistful of surprising roster moves.

If the essential makeup of the 2011 team holds for most of the season, last night's home-opener may be indicative of what's to come. Counting some of the ways after the jump.

Alex Cobb's performance last night bore a strong resemblance to some of Jeremy Hellickson's when Hellickson was at vintage level for the Bulls. Hellickson's raw stuff might a touch better than Cobb's: His four-seam fastball is a couple of mph faster, his changeup has more separation from the fastball in velocity, and he has a cut-fastball (which Cobb has experimented with but doesn't really throw yet) and a curveball that he can throw two different ways. Nonetheless, Cobb mixed his pitches beautifully last night—it was a rather cerebral performance—and like Hellickson used his changeup often, and to potent effect.

Cobb's changeup is an unusual one: It's a "split-change," he said afterward, rather than the circle-change Hellickson throws, and it functions quite like a sinker. Cobb's fastball sits at 90-91 mph; the changeup usually clocks in at about 84 mph. ("I rely more on the pitch action than on the speed differential," Cobb said.) And where Hellickson's changeup swerves and spins, Cobb's dives. He relied on it quite a bit early on and kept the Tides off balance with it. The success of the pitch allowed him to show his solid but not blazing fastball more frequently. And as the game wore on, he started to feature his curveball oftener, dropping it in for strikes or getting swings and misses from the Tides' hitters (it should be said that the Tides' lineup doesn't appear, at first glance, to be a very threatening bunch this year). Cobb produced a whopping 16 swings-and-misses, by my count, with his 82 pitches—also a Hellicksonian rate. Those 82 pitches seemed quite efficient, considering that they included 10 strikeouts. That Cobb only got two groundball outs wasn't, in a performance like this one, cause for concern, to my eyes. He allowed only three hard-hit balls all evening.

Another resemblance to Hellickson: Cobb's mound presence is calm and measured, and even a hot line drive back through the box that nearly decapitated him didn't seem to rattle him much. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo compared Cobb to Hellickson almost as soon as his post-game media interview began, and it was the similarity in demeanor that Montoyo emphasized most strongly. That will serve Cobb very well as he works his way to the majors.

A sample at-bat, in the fourth inning versus the Tides' erratic but dangerous slugger Nolan Reimold, who had lined out to third base in his first at-bat versus Cobb: Cobb threw two four-seam fastballs inside, to back Reimold off the plate. The count a dicey 2-0 in Reimold's favor, Cobb went to his changeup twice, dropping the first one in for a strike and getting Reimold to swing and miss awkwardly at the second. On 2-2, he pushed Reimold off the plate again with another fastball inside. The count was full, and Cobb went to his curveball, low and away if I recall, and Reimold, clearly not looking for it, struck out swinging.

More maturity: In the next inning, the fifth, Cobb started to close his shoulder off to soon in his delivery, resulting in too-late arm action. Ryan Adams lined that single up the middle that almost nailed Cobb's head—more on pitchers getting nailed in the head later in this post—and then Cobb hit ex-Bull Michel Hernandez with an errant fastball. He went to a full count on Tyler Henson, but made the mechanical adjustment he needed to make and struck Henson out.

Asked later to compare Class AAA to Class AA, he gave us the line of the night, succinct and succinctly funny: "Everything's better." If he keeps pitching like he did last night, he'll get to compare Class AAA to the majors soon enough.

***

Relievers Mike Ekstrom and Brandon Gomes were perfect for three innings in relief of Cobb, adding five more strikeouts between them, continuing the Durham bullpen's early-season run of great effectiveness. The relief corps has now thrown 38 innings this season—more than the starters (36 2/3), which reveals how much they've already been used—and the second unit sports a dazzling 1.89 ERA, having allowed only 41 baserunners via hit or walk while striking out 39 batters. On paper, this looks like a strong bullpen, and so far they're meeting expectations—exceeding them, in fact, by a wide margin.

They'll be asked to keep hitting a high mark, and with two fewer arms for the time being. Starter Richard De Los Santos, who lasted only two innings in his previous start at Charlotte, has shoulder soreness and was placed on the disabled list today. This is potentially cause for serious concern, because De Los Santos has had shoulder problems in the past and his arm tired out on him at the end of 2010, when he pitched far more innings than he ever had before in a season, and perhaps should have been shut down in late August—except that the Bulls' starting rotation was decimated by injuries, and De Los Santos was one of the only guys left standing.

He'll be replaced, for now, by Brian Baker, who moves out of the bullpen just as he did last year when injuries necessitated reinforcements to the starting rotation. Baker, too, developed late-season arm-fatigue in 2010, and he, unlike De Los Santos, was shut down. Baker pitched a little in Venezuela in the off-season, but the ballclub there was confusingly run and he was released, to his surprise, after just a few innings of work. Chances are he'll only be able to last four innings or so for now in Durham, until his arm is stretched out for heavier use. That will tax the bullpen further—a bullpen which no longer has long-man Brian Baker in it.

Nor, for the next few days, will it have Chris Bootcheck. Before the game, a Bulls official, not knowing what the party line was yet, I suppose, attributed Bootcheck's trip to the disabled list—retroactive to Wednesday—to "illness": clearly an ad-libbed lie. After the game, Montoyo told us the real story: In the game in Charlotte in which De Los Santos had to leave after two innings, Bootcheck was summoned to pitch. He was still in the clubhouse at that point, not expecting to be called on so early in the game. Rushing to the playing field, he didn't see a pipe running across the ceiling at head-height. Clang! Bootcheck was laid out in the corridor. But he recovered to pitch two scoreless innings.

We can make of light of it now, but after throwing those two innings, Bootcheck came out for a third, called his coach to the mound, and asked him where he was. Not what inning it was, where he was. End of outing. Bootcheck's CT scan came back clean, but he has a slight concussion, apparently, and will be out several more games. I didn't seem him in the clubhouse to ask how he feels or offer ibuprofen.

So for now, the remaining six relievers—Ekstrom, Gomes, Cory Wade, R. J. Swindle, Rob Delaney and Dane De La Rosa—can expect plenty of action. If there are any blowouts or extra-inning marathons, look for Craig Albernaz to get a turn on the mound. Albernaz is a catcher, as you may know, and was added to the roster in De Los Santos's place (leaving the Bulls still a man short). But he has pitched for Montoyo before, rather well in fact (and even played second base once).

Albernaz's potential role as mop-up relief isn't really a joke, by the way. According to Montoyo, Albernaz—when informed he'd be taking off the sweatshirt (I told you to read the Glossary, class!)—immediately replied: "I'll be in the bullpen, right?" That provides a good opportunity to reprise the laugh-line Montoyo delivered back in 2009 after Albernaz's ninth-inning pitching performance against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre: The vertically-challenged Albernaz (he's listed, very optimistically, at 5-foot-8) would be designated strictly for short relief, Montoyo said—but then he explained: "I only said that cause he's five-foot-two."

So here we are again: an overworked Durham bullpen. It's like this every year, and every year the overworked Durham bullpen rises to the challenge, it seems. This year, though, the personnel has been substantially changed—gone are Winston Abreu, Joe Bateman and Dale Thayer, the three kings of the 2009-2010 court—so we'll see if performances like Ekstrom's and Gomes's on Thursday will continue as the year goes on. The relievers stand, in any case, to be well introduced by the starters, especially if Dirk Hayhurst's first two outings are standard-setters for him going forward. If they are, then he—along with Cobb and Alex Torres, the latter of whom may be the best of the bunch—could make for a formidable 1-2-3 punch. And that isn't even taking into account the distinct possibility that De Los Santos will regain his strength and the effectiveness he showed for much of 2010. All in all, last night's game looked very much like the type we may see many more of this year, marked by very good pitching from all involved.

***

One other thing from the win in the home opener that may represent the standard for the 2011 Bulls: The team didn't do much at the plate. Durham took advantage of early wildness by Tides starter VandenHurk, plus a pair of errors on one play by the Tides infield, and managed single runs in each of the first three innings. But they also stranded five baserunners in those three innings, and other than Canzler's sixth-inning homer had just one other man reach base over their last five innings at the plate. (They also committed two not-quite SBGs—Glossary again—that basically added up to one full-fledged one: after Ray Olmedo doubled to lead off the seventh, he should have been able to make it to third when a pitch in the dirt bounded off Michel Hernandez's chest protector and scooted about 30 feet up the first-base line; but Olmedo got a poor read on it and stayed put. After Desmond Jennings grounded out to the pitcher, Olmedo, who is a poor base-stealer, tried to swipe third. He was easily thrown out. End of threat.)

Canzler's homer, though, reminded me that he has good power—and speedy outfielder Brandon Guyer also has some home-run pop in his bat. Both of these players are seeing their first Triple-A action, and if they can make the most of it—by hitting some long balls, especially—the Bulls could wind up with a surprisingly productive lineup, one that at first glance looks much less intimidating than 2010's, which had not only Dan Johnson and Chris Richard—a major power-punch in the middle of the lineup—but also the well-rounded Elliot Johnson at his best, plus early-season bombers like Hank Blalock and Ryan Shealy.

The 2011 team will almost certainly need better work from Leslie Anderson, now the everyday first baseman since Casey Kotchman's quick promotion to Tampa (he replaced Manny Ramirez, although "replaced" is probably the wrong word). Anderson has begun the 2011 season in a funk, with just three hits in his first 28 at-bats, and zero walks drawn. It's too soon to make decisions about what's wrong with him, if anything (he was dropped from the 40-man roster this spring, a disappointing surprise for him to be sure), and he hit two balls hard for outs last night—but a .107 batting average is hard to overlook.

It would also be nice to see Chris Carter, who hit 24 homers for Pawtucket in 2008 and 16 more in 2009, bang 15 or so of them this season. If he and Justin Ruggiano, who has had two eerily similar 15-homer seasons in a row, can give the Bulls some extra-base hits, the team may very well have enough of what it needs to support what should be very good pitching. So far, the team ERA is a stellar 2.17—that'll rise, of course—and they have not allowed more than five runs in any game so far. The thing is, they also have not scored more than five, and the team OPS is currently under .700, dampened further by very poor production with RISP. That will have to improve for the Bulls to have any shot at making the playoffs for the fifth straight season.

(By the way, if you're interested enough to have read this far and haven't yet read our season preview of the Bulls, you might find it of interest.)

***

Edgar Gonzalez, the 28-year-old recent free-agent acquisition signed in early March to consume some innings—kind of this year's Virgil Vasquez, I guess—starts Friday night for the Bulls. Gonzalez was roughed up for seven hits and three runs and was done after just 3 2/3 innings in his first start of the year, but he does have over 100 games of major-league experience on his resume, mostly with Arizona. His opponent was slated to be Chris George, whom the Bulls faced five times last season (in fact, his first three starts came against Durham). But instead he will apparently be replaced by Steve Johnson, a 23-year-old who appears to have been just called up to Norfolk from Double-A, probably to replace Brad Bergesen, who was promoted to the majors by Baltimore on Wednesday. If that announced switch turns out to happen, this will be Johnson's first time pitching in a Triple-A baseball game. Maybe he should get advice on how to handle it from Alex Cobb.

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