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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Durham Bulls beat Norfolk Tides again: Full frames

Posted by on Sat, Apr 16, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Desmond Jennings has reasons to smile.
DBAP/ DURHAM—The Durham Bulls finally put a substantial helping of runs on the plate last night, striking for four in the second inning and four more in the seventh. That was plenty to beat the Norfolk Tides, 8-3, the Bulls' fourth straight win, giving them first place in the IL South Division.

In fact, Desmond Jennings nearly beat Norfolk all by himself. He hit a three-run home run in the second inning and narrowly missed another later in the game, when he blasted a long drive way, way out of the ballpark but a little bit foul, west of the snorting Bull above the Blue Monster. He also drew a pair of walks, scored after one of them, and stole his third base of the season in as many tries.

The homer is the highlight, of course, because it was Jennings's second of the season so far after he hit just three all of last year: The power is back, he's swinging without impediments—he's healthy. Everything about Jennings's game right now tells you that he feels good and is ready to make a push to the big leagues.

Almost as important as the home run, though, were Jennings's two walks. He has always been a disciplined and patient hitter, and you might have expected him to lose a little of that discipline out of sheer excitement at feeling healthy enough to swing away for the first time in a year. But his approach was the same last night as it has pretty much always been: He saw 20 pitches, 11 of them taken for balls (a 12th hit him). Jennings has drawn seven walks so far this year and struck out six times, a slight improvement on his already very good career K/BB ratio. More and more, it seems to me that hitting at the highest level, assuming you can swing a bat decently, is simply a matter of being able to tell the difference between a ball and a strike. Simple, yes, but not easy, since you have about four 10ths of a second to make your decision. But that's the hitter's job.

Why go straight into the details of Jennings's performance last night? Because that was about the only real excitement of the sludgy, 2:56 affair, which was filled with walks and deep counts and poor hitting and a lot of runners left on base by both teams. Orioles and Tides fans, I hate to tell you this, and I know it's early in the year, but your Triple-A team, now 1-8 this year, already looks listless and frustrated on the field barely five percent of the way into the season. Bulls starter Edgar Gonzalez was nothing like dominant; he doesn't have electric stuff and he put eight men on base in five functional innings, but Norfolk didn't take advantage. The only run the Tides scored off of him was aided by a fielding error by second baseman J. J. Furmaniak and an infield single that might have been an out had Gonzalez not deflected (a reflexive stab he couldn't help making) Brandon Snyder's bouncer up the middle. Chris George, who replaced a very shaky Steve Johnson—making his first Triple-A appearance and lasting only four innings—had bad body language on the mound, looking frustrated and down in the mouth. That's why it wasn't really a surprise that, after he pitched two scoreless relief innings in the fifth and sixth, George self-destructed in the seventh. But apparently he was out there to eat up some innings for the Tides, because it wasn't until all four runs had scored in that inning that his eventual replacement started to warm up in the bullpen. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said after the game, in his generously sportsmanlike way, that the Tides would eventually get hot, but right now they look like a team just playing out a string.

The Bulls, meanwhile, are, as Jennings put it, "relaxed, laid back." Where the scrappy 2009 team was often raucous and frothy and the 2010 edition coolly affable but businesslike, the 2011 bunch—younger overall, I think, than the two previous squads—has a breezy confidence about it. Many of them have been in the Rays organization for a while, and three of the new players were together in the Chicago Cubs organization last season. The collective attitude seems to be one of a sense of belonging here now, in the right place at the right time (no doubt fifth-year Bull Justin Ruggiano would disagree). Every man jack of them would rather be in the majors, of course, but the team has fewer old salts anxiously watching the sands drop through the hourglass, grain by grain and day by day; fewer super-prospects itching to get called up; and zero just-demoted longtime big-leaguers resentful of their downwardly mobile direction. It's probably good for the Bulls, frankly, that Casey Kotchman and Felipe Lopez, both veteran major-league players stuck in unfavorable minor-league circumstances, were both called up to Tampa Bay immediately after the season began: Whatever disgruntlement they might have inflicted on the clubhouse followed them right out the Durham door.

The team that remains—and again, it should be stressed that it's early in the year, too soon to draw conclusions—seems like peers—a club, rather than just a bunch of players. As we reporters collected around Jennings for a postgame interview, pitcher Dane De La Rosa—who I imagine barely knows Jennings—asked a mock question on our behalf: "Desmond Jennings, why'd you do so well tonight?" Everyone laughed, partially because De La Rosa's question both cut to the chase that we often take too long to arrive at, and also exposed its own essential unanswerability: Jennings did so well because he's really good at what he does, and like anyone with a job, he has everything from really good days at it to really bad ones. Last night, he had one of the good ones.

More after the jump.

For Bulls fans, the best thing about last night's win was that the team put together two four-run innings on the way to setting a season high so far for runs scored in a game. The Bulls hadn't scored more than five runs in a game before last night, and only twice this year had they scored even three runs in an inning—so last night's pair of four-inning outbursts was a promising sign. The Bulls looked, in action, as one might have feared they would by inspecting them on paper at the beginning of the season: a light-hitting bunch without any truly fearsome hitters.

What they do have, though, is a bunch of rather good ones. Apart from Jennings, there are (by my count) six Bulls capable of doing significant, consistent damage, and last night they clustered their damage-doing effectively. They scored in only two of their eight innings at bat, and needed help in the form of eight walks issued by Tides pitchers, but the frames in which they scored were full ones—and they were patient enough to take those walks, four of which led to runs. Justin Ruggiano hit the ball hard twice (once for a loud out), Russ Canzler walked three times and singled, and even Leslie Anderson showed signs of life. He walked—his first base on balls of the year (!)—and singled twice. He had had just three hits all year prior.

A brief pitching note: R. J. Swindle, the only left-hander in the Durham bullpen, was called on to retire just one batter last night, a lefty. Charlie Montoyo rarely deploys LOOGYs (that's been added to the Glossary; go read it)—he usually likes to give his relievers their own undivided inning—so you're free to speculate that the Rays asked Montoyo to find some specific lefty-on-lefty situational opportunities for Swindle, in case they ever want that post-Randy Choate LOOGY to hock at, say, the Red Sox' Adrian Gonzalez. (For the record, he got Rhyne Hughes to foul out.)

***

The Bulls' roster was filled back to capacity after the loss of Chris Bootcheck and Richard De Los Santos to the disabled list. Right-handed reliever Paul Phillips was promoted to Durham from Montgomery. It was kind of weird to see him at the DBAP in April, because he's spent virtually all of the last two seasons with Biscuits and, at the tail end of each one, been sent up to Durham around the time of the September 1 roster expansion to pitch just a few games for the Bulls. They've been important ones: Phillips, a reliever his entire career, has started three playoff games for the Bulls over the last two years—elimination games, in fact—and won two of them (here and here, if you'd like to indulge in some nostalgia). He also threw six heroic innings of very long relief in the Bulls' season-ending win over these same Norfolk Tides last year.

But there he was, on income tax day, barely a week into 2011, coming out to pitch the ninth inning of what had by then turned into a rout. It was 8-2 until Phillips allowed a rocket solo homer to Brandon Snyder on an 89-mph fastball. Phillips has been comfortably in the 92-95 range previously, and he told me after the game that he's still basically in Spring Training in terms of his preparation, building up his arm strength. He got a late start in 2011 for reasons I was asked (by the team trainer) to postpone revealing, having faced live hitters just four times this year so far; but he's on track now and expects to be back at full frame soon. It would be nice to see the friendly, straight-talking Michigander do well and stick in Durham, given that he's swooped in and rescued the Bulls in two consecutive post-seasons. It seems only fair to at least give him a chance to try to win a legitimate, season-long spot in Class AAA, after all he's done for the team since 2009.

***

A quick injury note: Charlie Montoyo said that he expects Richard De Los Santos to miss one or two starts. Don't be surprised if that turns into three or four.

The Bulls are scheduled to take on the Gwinnett Braves at 5:05 p.m. today. The weather may wipe that slate clean, but if the rains abate, Durham lefty Alex Torres will face off against the Braves' Jacob Thompson, a highly regarded, 6-foot-6 right-hander. I'm off tonight, but I'll see you back at the DBAP Sunday for what could very well be a doubleheader.

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