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Monday, April 18, 2011

Gwinnett Braves crush Durham Bulls: Disaster Relief

Posted by on Mon, Apr 18, 2011 at 6:00 AM

The Bulls are donating to the Red Cross disaster relief fund for Saturdays storm damage
  • www.triangleredcross.org
  • The Bulls are donating to the Red Cross disaster relief fund for Saturday's storm damage
DBAP/ DURHAM—Bulls fans: Something much more important about your team than the outcome of last night's game to consider. As you probably know, the storm system that rampaged across our area on Saturday had deadly consequences. More than 20 people were killed, many homes were destroyed and lives were permanently altered for the worse.

In response, the Durham Bulls are announcing this morning that, for every new Facebook fan they tally between now and the end of the current homestand—that is, through Friday—they'll donate a dollar to the Red Cross disaster relief fund for North Carolina. If you're reading this and you're on Facebook, you should probably already be a Durham Bulls Facebook fan. But if you're not, go here. If you are, get someone you know to do it. This is an easy one, the equivalent of a ball placed on a tee. It won't cost you anything to help except the few seconds it takes to click a mouse a few times.

Last night's game, as it happens, was a disaster for the locals, too. What had the makings of a typically tense, close affair between the Bulls and the Gwinnett Braves, which seesawed in the fourth and fifth innings, turned into devastation by the Braves in a single inning against reliever Paul Phillips. Phillips allowed the first 10 batters he faced to reach base in a catastrophic inning, and every single one of them scored. A 6-5 Bulls lead became a 15-6 Gwinnett lead, and by the eighth inning, Durham catcher Craig Albernaz moved to the other side of the battery, pitching the last six outs to conserve an already overtaxed bullpen. The final score was 18-7. The Bulls had allowed 17 runs in the previous eight games combined.

Details after the jump.

Let's remove the big debris first: Paul Phillips told me after the game that no, he isn't injured—that's not what accounted for his nightmarish sixth inning. He didn't shoo me away from his locker, didn't scream or punch anything, didn't blame the late start he got on spring training—he's basically a month behind everyone else. He made no excuses. "I came in to do the job, keep us close. Didn't." Those were his first words. "As the inning went on, I was given a different job." Charlie Montoyo visited the mound with the casualties already mounting, with this revised assignment: "Eat up innings," Phillips said.

"Didn't," he repeated. When Mauro Gomez belted a grand slam to plate runs 5-8 of what would ultimately be a 10-run onslaught, the game was essentially over. "I have no excuses. I threw like crap." He actually used the word "crap," because he's a grownup who didn't want to force me to bleep out juvenile profanity. He praised his catcher, Albernaz, for setting his target low as a means of trying to encourage Phillips to keep the ball down. He didn't lament the 30-foot dribbler up the third-base line that became a base hit for Diory Hernandez. He didn't throw first baseman Leslie Anderson under the bus, even though Anderson—who isn't much of a first baseman, from what I've seen of him there so far this year—made an error that prolonged the inning. Phillips said the ball that Anderson mishandled had a lot of topspin on it. It did; it still should have been fielded. But Phillips knew it wasn't Anderson's fault that he kept leaving pitches up and out over the plate. He'd probably have missed the bus if he'd tried to throw Anderson under it, anyway.

Speaking of buses, more Phillips: "When stuff starts going downhill"—and here he mixed his metaphor, but I'm the only book critic who ever sets foot in the clubhouse—"hitters feed off that." Each successive man steps to the plate with the cumulative confidence that has built throughout the inning. I was a little surprised Phillips never came inside or perhaps even hit a batter, just to push the Braves increasingly cocksure hitters off the plate. But he had something else on his agenda: "I was just looking for a out"—that's how he said it, uh out, to stress the tiny singleness of that one, that solitary, that stop-the-bleeding out he needed. It took him 11 batters—and a couple of generous strike calls by the umpire—to get it.

Phillips was philosophical. He even managed to laugh. "If somebody tells me, 'Man, I had a bad inning today,' I can go: 'Huh.'" And then he laughed. What's the alternative? Crying? You know what they say about crying in baseball.

Fastballs, curves (it was a hanging curve that Gomez hit out over the Blue Monster), pottery, surprise parties: nothing Phillips threw worked. When he got ahead in the count, he couldn't put batters away. When he got behind, they hit his attempts to get back even in the count. Or they just hit the first pitch they saw deep into the outfield. "Even the pitches that I did get called strikes weren't good strikes," he said. Phillips was probably referring to the first out he got in the inning, finally, after 10 straight men reached base: Home plate umpire Jon Byrne decided to call two fringe pitches strikes, one inside and one outside, that Phillips threw to Braves' catcher J. C. Boscan. Totally bewildered, even offended, Boscan turned to Byrne after strike three and said (or his lips appeared to say), "Give them to me, too" meaning that when Boscan was behind the plate in the next inning and beyond, he expected Byrne to call those pitches strikes for Gwinnett's pitchers, too.

They turned out not to need them. Scott Proctor relieved for Gwinnett in the inning immediately following the 10-run massacre and walked the first two batters he faced. You could almost get yourself to believe that, if Desmond Jennings followed the walks with a three-run homer, the Bulls might still somehow have a chance. They were down 15-6 but had four more innings in which to hit. 15-9, in a game like this, actually seemed hopeful.

Sure enough, Jennings hit a long drive—to the opposite field, in fact—off of Proctor, whom the Bulls hit very well last year. (A little about him in this post.) But it was hauled in on the warning track by Stefan Gartrell, newly acquired by the Braves from the White Sox organization, for whom he'd been playing in Charlotte for the last season-plus. (It's weird to see him in a Gwinnett uniform.)

And that was pretty much it. After the Bulls' Rob Delaney pitched the seventh inning on a night he should have had off, Albernaz shed his catcher's gear and took another one for the team, allowing a pair of homers with his straight, flat batting-practice fastball (87-ish mph) that was, all things considered, better than Phillips's 89-mph version. Somewhere in there the Bulls added one more run thanks to a two-base passed ball and an infield single by Jennings.

***

Would you believe that more than half of this game was close? Jose Lobaton's leadoff homer in the second inning gave the Bulls a 1-0 lead, and what was interesting about that homer—other than that it pushed Lobaton's OPS further into the stratosphere, a superhuman 1.452 after the dinger—was what happened after he hit it. Rounding first base in his home-run trot, Lobaton pointed out toward right field, vaguely in the direction of the bleachers where the ball landed. Turns out he was pointing at his own bullpen, because he had promised them he would hit a homer for them on Sunday. Lobaton's story was confirmed by Mike Ekstrom.

The Braves struck right back. Craig Albernaz's passed ball helped give Gwinnett the tying run off Bulls starter Brian Baker in the top of the third inning. Then Baker seemed to fade. He had thrown 23 pitches in his first appearance of the season and 36 in the second. He wasn't really prepared to go very deep into the game last night. No surprise, then, that his 48th pitch hit Diory Hernandez to lead off the fourth inning. Stefan Gartrell lined out very hard to left field, and then came the crucial at-bat of Baker's night. He got ahead of Joe Mather—I think the count was 1-2—but he couldn't put Mather away. Mather, a seasoned veteran with ample power, fouled off pitch after pitch and looked at a couple of balls to run the count full. Baker doesn't throw hard, topping out at 90 mph, but the issue is never velocity with Baker. He's a finesse pitcher, so it's all variation, location and movement. He just couldn't throw the pitch he needed in the spot where he needed—and Mather, to his credit, spoiled some good ones.

Still, on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, he got Mather to hit an easy grounder right to shortstop Ray Olmedo, who indeed deemed it so easy that he found it unnecessary to bother with the formality of actually catching it—it rolled right under his glove and into left field. Mauro Gomez followed with an RBI double off the Blue Monster, and Charlie Montoyo came and got Baker after his 64th pitch.

R. J. Swindle relieved, ran a full count on Dan Nelson (whose name shall live in infamy), and couldn't put him away either: Nelson singled to score Mather. It was now 4-1, Braves.

Swindle prevented further damage, and the Bulls did an admirable job of coming back in the bottom of that same inning—in fact, Charlie Montoyo was as interested in praising that show of tenacity, during his post-game interview, as he was in assessing Phillips's subsequent troubles. Just as Baker had wearied and departed after 3 1/3 innings, so did his counterpart, the Braves' Jacob Thompson. (He is not to be confused with Rays' prospect Jake Thompson, although they're both youngish right-handers with fastballs in the 92-94 mph range and good sliders.) Lobaton's homer aside, Thompson looked sharp early, striking out the side in the first inning and repeating the feat in the third. But he quickly coughed up the lead in the fourth on doubles by Leslie Anderson, J. J. Furmaniak and Craig Albernaz. The last was a boomer to deep left-centerfield on a 2-0 count—Albernaz, who likes to shoot the ball into right field, was ready for Thompson's fastball, and he drilled it and turned it around to left. He regained the lead for the Bulls, temporarily, at 5-4.

But R. J. Swindle couldn't hold onto it. Speedster Jose Constanza singled to lead off—he wound up with five slap-and-bunt singles on the night in six at-bats—and Gartrell followed one out later by positively crushing a ball down the left-field line. This impressive, head-turning home-run ball instead became, thanks to the Blue Monster, a single—it hit about 30 feet up, still rising it seemed, and made impact about where the wall hits the plexiglass protector above it.

That was a gift for Swindle: He just had runners at first and second instead of two runs in on a monster homer. But he couldn't capitalize: He got Mather to fly out to center field, but with two outs he gave up an RBI single to Mauro Gomez, and it was 5-5.

A brief aside about Swindle, and I'm really just pondering rather than advising. He told me last season that his velocity was a little decreased—the 2010 edition of his fastball usually clocked in at around 79 mph, his slider around 69, and there was the gimmicky cartoon-curveball, which he dials all the way down to 48 mph at times but is usually right at 50). Last night, his velocity was indeed back up to where it apparently once was. The fastball regularly arrived at 82 mph, and the slider—which he throws far more often than the fastball; it's his bread-and-butter pitch—reached as high as 74 but hovered around 72. I'm not sure that increase in speed is a good thing, though, because at that speed the slider A) doesn't have that same fooling slowness about it and B) more importantly, doesn't seem to sweep and swerve as much—to my eyes, anyway—as it did last year. I don't think it's often wise to counsel a pitcher to throw softer—and for all I know, the Rays like the extra mph Swindle has added back on to his pitches—but I'm not sure it wasn't hurting rather than helping him last night. Also, here's noting that he never threw a curveball in his 35-pitch outing, even though he had a couple of hitters, Boscan and Gartrell, set up perfectly for it. (That said, they've seen Swindle plenty now; maybe they're no longer vulnerable to his curveball.)

The Bulls got Swindle's run back for him in the very next inning, the bottom of the fifth, when Lobaton drew the first of his two walks—he reached base in four of five plate appearances last night—and then scored on a long double by Russ Canzler. And that brings us to the fateful sixth inning, and some morbid joke you could make about Phillips and head and screwdriver. Fourteen batters. Ten runs. Nine hits. Forty pitches. If it's any consolation, two of the runs were unearned. Also on the bright side, at least Phillips's awfulness kept Brandon Guyer's four-strikeout night from attracting notice (oops, sorry). And Justin Ruggiano's three-K night, with a double-play grounder attached: lost in the attack. Or look at it like this: Take away Phillips's sixth inning disaster and the game story becomes: Those musteline Gwinnett Braves used a ninth-inning, two-run homer off of the Bulls' third-string catcher, pressed into emergency duty by injuries to the Durham pitching staff, in order to weasel out of the park with an 8-7 victory. Too, optimists may wish to recall that Mitch Talbot allowed 10 runs in an inning as a Bull in 2007—and he's now a major-league starter for the Cleveland Indians. Looking for a little more home-team fighting spirit and partisan pride? Here you go: Last season, the Bulls scored 10 runs in the first inning off of Syracuse Chiefs pitcher Jason Jones, and Jones didn't even finish the inning—he only got two outs before he was relieved. At least Phillips finished out his frame like a man, and cleaned up his own mess.

Any of that help? No, I didn't think so.

***

Hey, fans, think fast: The Bulls and Braves face off again today—this afternoon!—really soon!—at 1:05 p.m. at the DBAP. On the mound for Durham is righty Dirk Hayhurst: bestselling author, Aries, dermatograph and, most importantly, owner of a sparkling 1.64 ERA through his first two starts of 2011; he stifled Gwinnett in the first one. His opponent will be Mike Minor, one of the Braves' top prospects, a former first-round draftee out of Vanderbilt, just like another pitcher seen not too long ago at the DBAP by the name of David Price. It'll be 80+ degrees, you'll be skipping work, and let's face it: It can't be worse than Sunday.

Don't forget to help the Bulls contribute—at no cost to you—to the Red Cross disaster relief fund in response to Saturday's storms and tornadoes, by becoming a Facebook fan of the Bulls by the end of the homestand. In fact, do it now. See you this afternoon at the DBAP.

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