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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Durham Bulls blank Indianapolis Indians: an Early Wynn

Posted by on Thu, May 12, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn
  • Hall of Fame pitcher Early Wynn
DBAP/DURHAM— "If we would have known that was the only run of the game," Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said, lamenting what might have been, after the Bulls edged Indianapolis 1-0 on Wednesday morning, thanks to a first-inning solo home run by Justin Ruggiano—"If [we] would have known that it was going to end one-nothing, we could have said 'OK, let's go home. Have an early day.'"

It was right around, let's say, 11:13 a.m. when Ruggiano, who just about 12 hours earlier had given the Bulls a walkoff 2-1 win in 11 innings over these same Indians, got ahead of Indianapolis starter Brian Burres 2-0. The lefty Burres threw him a two-seam fastball on the outer half of the plate. It wasn't a terrible pitch, really, but Ruggiano is the hottest hitter in the league right now, and he hit an opposite-field homer to straightaway right field.

And that was that. Alex Cobb, J. P. Howell and Jake McGee collaborated on a five-hit shutout—the Bulls' second in four games—and neither team scored again. (The Bulls had only four more baserunners.) Had we known at 11:13 what we knew a little over two hours later, the two bleary-eyed teams, wiping sleep from their eyes after the previous night's extra-inning game, could have gone right back to bed until Thursday afternoon. Instead, it had to be earned the long way.

Early Wynn, by the way, won 300 major-league games, but it took him seven starts over nine months between 1962-63, stuck on 299, to notch the 300th. So he's just about the right symbol for yesterday's game, which established its outcome from the start but then endured: an early wynner who broke into the majors at age 17, in 1939, Wynn pitched for 23 seasons, retiring 24 years to the day after his first game. (He didn't pitch at all in 1940.) Known as a pugnacious competitor, legend has it that Wynn was once accused of being so mean that he wouldn't give his mother a good pitch to hit. "Don't forget," he is reported to have replied, "my mother was a hell of a hitter." (A variation goes: "Somebody once said that [Wynn] would knock down his own mother if she crowded the plate on him. 'Why shouldn’t I?' said Wynn. 'My mother was a damned good hitter.'”)

Everybody wynns, except the Indians (who, alas, almost never do), after the jump.

"Good pitching. Or bad hitting. Whatever you want to call it." That's how Montoyo assessed the game afterward, and he was probably right on both counts (he concluded that it was a little of each). I'm still both amazed and slightly confused by Alex Cobb. His 90-mph four-seam fastball, which is often at 89 mph and occasionally touches 92, seems only a little above average—the two-seamer is usually a better pitch, it seems to me—and this much-discussed "split-change" of his is not always easy for him to control. It was mushy and flat for the first part of yesterday's game, although he got better results with it as his outing progressed. Still, he threw strikes—in one 25-pitch stretch, 22 were strikes—and the Indians hit only a couple of balls hard off of him. Andrew Lambo's long fifth-inning flyout to deep center field, which Desmond Jennings hauled in at the warning track, was the most threatening ball hit off of Cobb. Lambo played some cat-and-mouse with him during the at-bat, habitually calling time when the quick-working Cobb leaned in for the sign, in order to throw off Cobb's rhythm.

Said Cobb: "Day game"—and no ordinary one; 11:00 a.m. is a long way before most ballgames start—"you don't have a ton of energy, so you want to go out there and get off the field as quick as possible." He delivered this line amicably, as if he had simply been endeavoring to do something nice for his tired teammates. "Only way to do that is to throw the fastball for strikes and let them put the ball in play." Sure enough, Cobb's fastball sat at 88-90 mph early, a tick or two slower than usual, almost as though he was inviting the Indians to hit it, and they complied. Corey Wimberly struck out to start the game, but Cobb generated only a handful of swings-and-misses in the first few innings (largely because the splitter initially lacked sufficient "depth," as Cobb described it). He noted that the Indians hit a lot of foul balls off of him, especially as the game wore on. If you want to find a flaw in a scoreless six-inning performance, it was in Cobb's lack of a put-away pitch. Five strikeouts in seven innings is perfectly alright, but it's well below what he had established early in the season. Note, though, that he had a modest four strikeouts in 6 1/3 innings in his previous start versus Syracuse. Hitters, and leagues, make adjustments.

So, though, did Cobb. In the second half of his outing, he made more of a habit of starting hitters off with pitches that weren't fastballs: "pitching backwards," as the saying goes. He threw two curveballs to begin Jason Jaramillo's at-bat in the fifth inning (and eventually struck him out), and started Wimberly with one in the sixth. "We knew going into the game that [Indianapolis] jumps on the fastball early in counts," Cobb explained. After exploiting that tendency at first—by keeping the fastball out of the middle of the plate, basically—Cobb anticipated the Indians' getting wise to it, and stopped letting them get comfortable with the fastball as an opener. He departed having thrown 99 pitches, 71 for strikes, racking up 25 of those pitches in the laborious fifth inning. Otherwise, he sailed.

But to pick at this a little: I'm not sure that Cobb's performance yesterday, effective as it was against Indianapolis—the second-worst hitting team in the league—would have gotten the job done in the big leagues. The best hitters recognize weaknesses; they make quicker adjustments; they are more patient; they are more discerning. Cobb's location of that 89-91 mph fastball was generally very sharp, but it is going to have to be even sharper. One of his early splitters hung, and a major-league hitter might very well have hammered it, as Hank Conger did in Cobb's big-league start on May 1. A straight changeup, if Cobb can throw one, or a cut-fastball, like Jeremy Hellickson has developed, might not be a bad idea to add into his arsenal—especially if he can't master the splitter.

This is not to criticize what Cobb's doing, only to suggest that, despite some calls for Cobb to replace Andy Sonnanstine on the Rays' big-league pitching staff, his work needs more refinement, more precision, more craft—which Cobb, a demonstrably intelligent competitor, and a very mature 23 years old, is capable of gaining. I'm often reminded that the final rung between Class AAA and the major leagues is very steep—just ask Desperate Dan Johnson, now hitting an astonishingly awful .122 with a .363 OPS after winning the IL MVP award last season. Ask Jake McGee, who struggled in April and was demoted to Durham—where he is dominating again, reaching new levels with a convincing two-inning save on Wednesday. Ask Winston Abreu, an All-Star caliber closer as a Bull for two years who basically flunked the majors and is now showing significant signs of peeling as a Triple-A Las Vegas 51. The list goes on and on, and to stay off of it you have to be not only better than Triple-A but better by quantity, perhaps, as well as quality—when you think you've got it all, that's when you have to add one more. Jeremy Hellickson, remember, came to Durham from Double-A Montgomery with three pitches, and overused his changeup when he first arrived. It worked well at this level, but his pitching coach, Xavier Hernandez, along with other Rays' coaches (I imagine), knew that wouldn't be enough in the majors—even as he mowed down IL hitters with apparent ease. Hellickson messed with a slider and a two-seamer before getting the hang of a cut-fastball, which has served him well.

***

More pitching: This was the first time I'd seen J. P. Howell pitch since his stalwart work for the Rays in their pennant-winning 2008 season. I had forgotten that Howell is basically, as the crusty Houston Astros scout sitting behind me put it while Howell threw his warmup tosses, a "smoke and mirrors" pitcher. But his smoke and mirrors worked very well on Wednesday. His 85-mph "fastball" moved a lot, his curveball fooled or froze hitters, and his changeup (I think) got at least one swing-and-miss. Howell's seventh inning featured two strikeouts, one called and one swinging, and he pitched around a harmless Texas-league single by Jaramillo. (It's great to be a lefty when you can only throw 85 mph.) He will pitch again Thursday for one inning, take a team-mandated three days off, pitch on Monday for the Bulls at Syracuse, and then—as he described it—a decision will be made about what to do with him next.

If there is a pleasanter interview than Howell, I can't remember it. Affable, welcoming, honest, forthcoming, you can see why the Modesto, Calif. born "Spicoli" (as he is sometimes called, in honor of the Fast Times at Ridgemont High character—he's sporting the long hair to go with the name, too) is so beloved by teammates—and everyone else, apparently—and not just because he buys the Bulls delectable post-game spreads. He is nearly all the way back from surgery that repaired a torn labrum in his shoulder, which cost him over a year. I wish I had a fancier voice recorder that would allow me to upload an audio file, so you could hear the rhythms and inflections of Howell's speech. In any case, most of the very invigorating interview follows, with three of us asking questions:

How are you feeling? "I feel great, man. I feel excited and I'm glad it's going smoothly." Is there anything specific you're working on at this point? "Everything. Tuning everything up. It's still a process; I'm not there yet, but I'm getting real close." Charlie [Montoyo] said he wants to work you in tomorrow, give you an inning on back-to-back days. What do you think about that? "I'm excited. I hate the three days off in between, even, and I think it's good for me to prove it, and get a lot off my chest. Just waiting around a year and a half: it's been a while; so the more I pitch, the more I get a feel and the happier I can become." Is your velocity where you want it at this point? "It's better than where I thought it would be, I'll be honest. About 85 was where I topped out today. [Howell adds that 85 is about where he topped out pre-surgery.] I don't have quite the adrenaline I would probably have in the big leagues, so I figure I'll maybe have a couple more [mph] when I get there. This is where I need to be [velocity-wise], no lower. Movement, mixing speeds, and don't give the same sequence to the guy in the next at-bat is what I try to do." Had you seen any of the [hitters you faced] before? "I know [the Indians'] John Bowker. We played against each other in high school. We definitely had a few good sessions, and I was lucky to get him today. [Howell struck out Bowker looking.] He's gotten me quite a few times. In high school, I think two times he hit a home run off me. Guys like that really test where I'm at. He can hit it." What's it like to be back in Durham? [Howell pitched as a Bull in 2007.] "It's amazing. It's cool because when I was here before, my wife never got to see where I came from. I got married [later], and she's here with me. It's pretty cool to see her response. [Durham] is kind of like my roots, where I really learned how to pitch. It was a great clubhouse, and it still is: the same club[house attendant]. I see him in spring [training], but it's not the same as seeing him in his element. I wrote on a locker over there, it's still there. It's funny stuff, man." Plus, you're making friends here by buying all these spreads. "It feels good to do that; I remember when guys were doing that for me down here." Assuming everything goes well [Thursday night] for you, do you feel like you're ready to get up [to Tampa]? "I'm ready right now, man, for sure. I'm ready to get things moving. I know it's a process, and the Rays have been really good about being careful. I think most other teams might rush me a little bit, and [the Rays] have done the exact opposite. I actually get a little upset over this wait, but that's good. They've pulled the reins on me, as they would say it, and that's smart, because my mind is constantly wanting to keep going. Syracuse on Monday, and then hopefully Toronto."

***

Jake McGee struck out four batters and walked one in two scoreless innings on Wednesday, earning his first save of the year. There was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over McGee's apparent loss of fastball velocity in Tampa in April, and watching his heater range between 90-95 mph yesterday, I was reminded of something he'd told me late last season. As I summarized it then: "McGee's fastball seems like two different fastballs—one a riding four-seamer that usually hits 94 or 95 mph, the other a 91-92 version that tails a bit. I thought it might be a two-seamer, but in fact it's the same four-seamer simply thrown with a tad less effort, giving McGee a sort of secondary fastball with which to keep hitters slightly off-balance."

Now I don't know whether McGee was for some reason only throwing the slower one in Tampa—as if to pace himself (but why would he do that?)—or if his arm strength wasn't there, or what was going on. I do know, though, that there is a precedent for a deliberately slower Jake McGee fastball, and that yesterday he looked pretty much like the Jake McGee who allowed just 12 baserunners and struck out 27 batters in 17 1/3 innings in 2010 as a Durham Bull, dialing it up to 93-94 mph without apparent strain against Indianapolis. I also know that McGee's breaking ball, though it still needs work, was his out-pitch when he struck out Pedro Ciriaco swinging to end the eighth inning yesterday (it clocked around 81 mph, if I recall). In the ninth, after he walked Bowker with two outs, he went to the... slurve, I guess you'd have to call it (still; it lacks definition), twice against Jaramillo after getting ahead 0-2. The second time, Jaramillo was out in front of it and hit a topper to shortstop for a game-ending force-out. That, to me, is also an encouraging sign.

***

Don't worry, I didn't forget about Justin Ruggiano, again the hero (in retrospect). Ruggiano knows full well that he isn't going to hit like this all year long, but he seems even keeled about it. He even had the perspective to dispense quickly with the particulars of his first-inning home run—he was looking for a certain pitch on 2-0, got it, and hit it—and move on to his next at-bat, when he figured that Indians starter Brian Burres would throw him cutters inside after getting victimized on the two-seamer away. Ruggiano grounded out to third in that at-bat, but not until he'd run the count full and seen eight pitches from Burres, who had a very efficient, very effective game, going to no other three-ball counts until he tired in the seventh, his final inning. In the sixth, Ruggiano fell behind 0-2, saw five more pitches, and flied out to very deep center field, just getting under the ball and missing another home run.

***

The Bulls aren't really hitting right now. They've scored just 25 runs in seven games in the homestand, or 3.57 runs per game—and they've needed four additional innings to do it, thanks to two 11-inning games. That rate of productivity would rank second-to-last in the IL, ahead of only god-awful Syracuse (2.94! no wonder the Bulls swept them). Charlie Montoyo seemed reasonably patient about that after the game, happy that his pitching has been so good recently that his hitters' struggles have been obscured. It occurred to me that Montoyo was, in his day, a rather light-hitting infielder (with a hell of a batting eye!), and thus likelier to be optimistic about the miseries of, say, J. J. Furmaniak and his .471 OPS—which he was ("Furmaniak's better than what he's doing")—than to give his pitchers a pass when they underachieve. Witness, for example, his fiery mound visit to the feckless Dane De La Rosa at the DAP on Monday. Still, Montoyo allowed that the lineup's May flowers, which have failed to bloom so far, "concerns me a little."

It's worth adding that this has been a strange and challenging homestand for hitters, circumstantially. There were two 5:00 p.m. games over the weekend—a terrible time of day to hit—the weird and disorienting one-off at the DAP, which throws the players off kilter, and then Wednesday's 11:00 a.m. "Education Day" game right after a long extra-inning contest the previous night. Durham's opponents—albeit the league's two worst-hitting teams—have scored even fewer runs than the Bulls during the homestand: far fewer, in fact, just 17. And more to the point, it's worth reminding ourselves that the Bulls are 6-1 over that stretch, re-establishing their long-tenured primacy in the IL South Division. They also have the league's second-best record at 21-13, trailing only defending champion Columbus's ludicrous 25-8 mark. So you can see why Montoyo wasn't sweating the downturn in run production all that much.

Montoyo told his players to show up for work a little later than usual on Thursday, the final game of the eight-game homestand. By the time they arrive at the DBAP, they will have had 24 hours' rest—almost as if they had a day off. That seems like a sure reverse-guarantee that they'll lose, of course, as does the return of opposing pitcher Sean Gallagher, because not only does the winless Gallagher have an awful 8.78 ERA, the Bulls punished him for nine hits and seven runs in four innings at Indianapolis on April 30. Naturally, it's under just these sorts of conditions that the guy throws seven shutout innings or something. So it will be up to Durham starter Alex Torres to keep Gallagher gagged and the herd stampeding. One concern: Gallagher and Torres have combined to allow 36 walks in 59 innings pitched: So where Wednesday was early, Thursday could be late. The game starts at the very normal hour of 7:05 p.m. Seeya there.

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