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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Durham Bulls Road Roundup, Vol. 4: Columbust!

Posted by on Tue, May 24, 2011 at 8:49 PM

Power-Outage-pic.gif
The power went out on my block while I was writing this, somewhere around 3:30 p.m., and as of 7:00 there's still a crew working on it. So this report comes to you from the friendly confines of Fullsteam Brewery, with a beer close at hand.

Kind of appropriate to the current, uh, current of the Bulls, in a way, this power outage; but not for the reasons you might expect. The Bulls are in fact scoring at will lately, having put up an impressive 54 runs in their last eight games—the 6.75 runs-per-game average would be tops, by far, in just about any league. No, the problem is that, while the Bulls have hit a five-game skid, including a just-concluded four game series sweep at the hands of the IL-best Columbus Clippers (they lost earlier today, 5-3), they have allowed 56 runs.

So it makes a certain kind of sense that the power on my street went out today not because of system over-taxing—temperatures have shot up into the 90s, suddenly, prompting air conditioners to crank all the way up—but because someone drove his or her car into a utility pole at the end of the block, taking down the lines. In other words, it's an attacker's power surge, not the limitations of the local grid itself, that has done the damage.

Five straight losses. When a pretty good team loses that many in a row, it's not because of one thing but because the precisely wrong thing seems to go wrong at precisely the wrong time. The bullpen is airtight, or nearly, but in relief of a desperately leaky starter who has basically lost the game before the relievers even appear; then, when the starter tosses a good game, the bullpen chooses that game, wouldn't you know it, to blow his lead. The lineup scores eight runs but the opponent scores nineor 11—and then, when the Bulls only need four runs to win, as they did yesterday, they score just two. A starter finally shines (Alex Cobb, naturally), but he is victimized by a costly error (by Omar Luna, in this case) and then a reliever (Corey Wade) comes on in a tie game and allows his first run in a month—and that run loses the game, 3-2.

When things are going bad, you lose games on extra-inning wild pitches. You spot a team an 8-0 lead, roar back to pull within two runs, and then lose, 11-8. You give up tons—tons—of runs after two outs. You ground into double plays at the worst possible times. Opponents' batted balls hit bat boys and become doubles. And so on.

So it doesn't matter that the Bulls have scored an impressive 54 runs over their last eight games versus Columbus and Louisville, nor that Alex Cobb has, in his last two starts, risen to the challenge of facing the league's two best-hitting teams and quieted them both. It doesn't matter that players like Leslie Anderson and Robinson Chirinos seem to have finally started hitting, nor that Ray Olmedo has raised his batting average 66 points since May 6. To some degree, the resurgence of these hitters has only helped offset the loss of Justin Ruggiano to the major leagues, followed there by Felipe Lopez, who had also started hitting well before he was summoned to spell Reid Brignac, on the bereavement list following the death of his grandfather.

Except for Cobb, the starting pitching has been dreadful, and has put the Bulls behind early in games. Even in the two games during the five-game slide when the Bulls scored first, the lead was gone by the fourth inning (or the second inning), and the starters handed over the keys to relievers with the company car already sputtering. To make matters worse, Edgar Gonzalez had to leave his start against Columbus after just one inning, suffering from back tightness—which meant that in the first two games of the series, he and stopgap starter Chris Bootcheck threw a combined total of 4 2/3 innings. Exposing the bullpen to that great a degree is never good, and the bullpen has, not surprisingly, struggled.

Oh, and the fielding has been bad, too: the Bulls lead the league in unearned runs allowed, even though their opponents have committed more errors than they have. Compare: the Bulls have made 39 errors leading to 32 unearned runs; their opponents have made 46—but leading to just 18. Pair that stat with the Bulls' recent trend of allowing copious two-out runs to score, and the team starts to look like they aren't taking advantage of opportunities while allowing their opponents to do just that. I think back to the final game of the Louisville series, when the Bulls, trailing 9-7 in the ninth, put runners at first and third with no outs, thanks partly to a hit batsman. But they plated only one of the baserunners, and that on a rally-ruining double play, and lost 9-8. It's brownouts like that one that help you lose five games in a row while averaging more than five runs per game.

***

Calling Columbus the best-hitting team in the league is like calling Alaska the biggest state in the union. It's just not even close, and the Clippers' hitting has allowed them to post a remarkable 32-14 record despite having the league's second-worst team ERA. I could rattle off statistics at you, but a good summary of them can be found in these two:

1) The Clippers have scored 50 more runs than second-place Louisville, which means that they are averaging over a run per game more than the IL's next best team. That is almost unheard of.

2) The Clippers have scored just 35 fewer runs than Rochester and Syracuse—combined.

"This Columbus team is just too good for Durham's pitching staff," Bulls broadcaster Neil Solondz declared partway through today's loss. Shortly afterward, musing on the Clippers' recent 4-6 stretch, a slump they broke out of just before the Bulls came to town, Solondz added, "You wonder if they got bored a little bit." That's how far they've outpaced the challenges presented them by the rest of the league.

Ordinarily, a team that hits this well would lose some of its best bats to the majors, but the Cleveland Indians have the best record in the big leagues right now and don't really need the help, thank you very much. Like last year's Tampa/Durham pair, only to a higher degree, the Indians have both the best major-league and Triple-A teams in baseball. For the time being, then, expect the defending IL champs, who set the tone for their 2011 season by running roughshod over the Bulls last September to claim the Governors' Cup (they outscored Durham 37-10 in four games), to improve their already glittering record. Only Daytona, of the Class A Florida State League, has a better record in affiliated professional baseball.

The Clippers' unusually high voltage notwithstanding, it seems to me that the Durham starting rotation as currently arranged isn't going to cut it. Cobb is throwing so well he could get called up to Tampa anytime if Jeff Niemann isn't able to return to action soon—Andy Sonnanstine, Niemann's temporary replacement, has pitched poorly. The rest of the starters are suspect: Alex Torres has shown significant signs of trouble, having allowed 14 runs and 13 walks in 15 1/3 innings pitched over his last three starts; Brian Baker isn't getting much done; Bootcheck probably isn't starter material—in fact, the Rays' shoehorning him into the Bulls' rotation seems to me not only a waste of a valuable bullpen arm (Bootcheck had superb year as Indianapolis' closer in 2009 before going to Japan in 2010), but an almost negligent mishandling of an employee, no matter Bootcheck's insistence that he can handle the increased load.

And now Edgar Gonzalez is showing signs of ailing. Merely getting Dirk Hayhurst back, whenever that happens, isn't going to solve the problem, even if Hayhurst pitches well. (By the way, he tweeted today that he expects to be back on Tuesday—just in time to face... the Columbus Clippers.)

To the Rays' credit, they have tried to patch the holes left by Hayhurst and Richard De Los Santos. Baker stepped into the starting rotation early last season, just like he has done this year, and was very effective for much of 2010 before his arm gave out toward the end. He just hasn't been able to duplicate the success this year as consistently, or at the highest level—his only two really effective starts came against two of the IL's worst-hitting teams when Baker faced them.

The Rays also sent the Bulls Class AA callup Jeremy Hall, but Hall was a bust, replaced (so far) by Bootcheck. It's still relatively early in the season—we're almost exactly 1/3 of the way through it—but pretty soon it may be time for the Bulls to muster in some viable reinforcements from farther afield. It seems unlikely that further callups, from Montgomery, of legitimate prospects will happen for at least another month: the Rays have young and promising arms down there, like Chris Archer and Matt Moore, that they'd probably rather protect and develop more slowly (as they did with Jeremy Hellickson in 2009). Instead, they may need to make waiver claims of other teams' sloppy seconds, or seek independent-league fixes for Durham.

(A few items in re the independent Atlantic League and its scattered ex-Bulls: 2009 workhorse Jason Cromer has a team-leading 2.49 ERA for the Somerset Patriots, and here's a recent update, with quotes, by Ryan Dunleavy, on Cromer's status; Matt DeSalvo isn't doing terribly for the York Revolution, though not well enough to warrant another go-round; Heath Phillips is struggling as a Long Island Duck, with a 6.23 ERA; and—good timing!—the Bulls' regular third baseman from 2010, Angel Chavez, has just resurfaced with the Bridgeport Bluefish after an APB turned up nothing on him for a while. He played in his first game on Sunday.)

It's true that the Durham bullpen has been hit around a lot lately, not just the starters, but part of that owes to overexposure—another reason why Chris Bootcheck would be a welcome re-addition to the relief staff. Whatever the Rays decide to do about the Bulls' pitching troubles, keep this in mind: It seems unlikely that, without legitimate help, the current staff can take this team to the playoffs. But keep this in mind, too: the current pitching staff will have changed noticeably before the playoffs are a concern. And finally, they've been facing the league's best hitters for the last eight games; they'll improve somewhat just by dealing with different teams.

Another bit of business to keep in mind over the next few days: As you probably know, Dan Johnson, the IL MVP in 2010 who might have broken some Bulls single-season records last year had he not been called up to Tampa in early August, made the Rays' major-league squad to start 2011. He struggled terribly, though, and was designated for assignment last week. If he clears waivers, which he is likely to do (who wants a million-dollar player with a .111 batting average?), he will probably accept an assignment to Durham. Otherwise, he forfeits his million bucks. The consequences of this move, should it come to pass, will be interesting to follow. It will push Leslie Anderson into the outfield more often and will probably mean more Johnson at first base, sending Russ Canzler, a liability with the glove, back to third again—which will in turn reshuffle the middle-infield troika of J. J. Furmaniak, Omar Luna and Ray Olmedo (Furmaniak has played some third base, so he'll push Olmedo and Luna around at second base and shortstop a little).

That possibility is a reminder of the loony, ready-set-cook unpredictability of a minor-league manager's life. It's kind of like subscribing to a CSA: you don't know what food you're getting, week to week, but you'd better figure out a way to work with whatever ingredients you get, even if they don't always marry well. Some weeks you get four pounds of kohlrabi; some weeks you get 18 leeks but no potatoes, so you can't make vichyssoise.

The same thing goes for Company Supplied Athletes. Right now Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo has three catchers (Craig Albernaz took off the sweatshirt a few days ago) and about three and a half starting pitchers. If Dan Johnson returns, he'll have to stir him into a pot that already includes Leslie Anderson and Russ Canzler and Chris Carter, all of whom make Johnson basically redundant. I have to think that to some degree Montoyo enjoys this way of cooking.

Johnson would provide the Bulls with something they don't quite have: a legitimate power bat. No one on the team is on pace to hit 20 homers—Durham's power threat is spread across the lineup, with hitters like Anderson, Canzler, Carter and Brandon Guyer likelier to hit 12-16 each (Johnson had 30 by the time of his callup in 2010). One thing the team had last year (in fact it had more than one), and could use now, despite its current run of success at the plate, is a middle-of-the-order lion, a guy who, all by himself, changes the whole complexion of a lineup and forces pitchers to make anticipatory tactical adjustments—in other words, an Alaska among, say, Illinoises. One of those, plus maybe a Pennsylvania or an Idaho in the starting rotation, might shore up the State of the Bulls.

***

Slightly off-topic, but noteworthy in the world of callups and demotions: Last night I caught a few innings of the Boston-Cleveland game on TV, and one play involved an umpire to the point that his name was used. It was David Rackley, whom Bulls fans may remember as having had 2010's tightest strike zone in the International League. That narrow zone may have been the consternation of many a Triple-A pitcher (and fan); but it seems to have in fact been the right one, because Rackley was called up to the big leagues, just as players are. This was a reminder that umpires are subject to the same cutthroat world of athletic competitionin which athletes labor. In fact, it's more cutthroat: If a player can't make it with one team, there are 29 others out there; if an ump can't, it's down to the lower and often amateur levels. )There are fewer than 100 full-time umpires in the majors; there are 750 ballplayers at any given time.) Rackley may have alienated a fair number of Class AAA toilers, but it turns out he was only doing it in order to prove his worthiness for the majors. Sometimes, apparently, strictness, rectitude and rigor really do have a reward.

***

The Gwinnett Braves swept a doubleheader from Lehigh Valley today, and are now tied with the Bulls for first place in the South Division. Meanwhile, the Charlotte Knights—like Columbus an all-hit, no-pitch team—can creep within 2 1/2 games of first place with a win at Buffalo tonight.

In the mean time, los Toros get an off-day in Toledo on Wednesday. I had one of those, once, but it was in Toledo, Spain, and I was 16 at the time. My school trip toured the cathedral there and ate gazpacho and I got drunk on a single glass of wine before whiling away the afternoon in a dazed state on Toledo's sun-baked main square. One of my classmates bought a bullwhip, or maybe it was a sword. I can't quite remember (not surprisingly).The things they used to let kids do. And speaking of things they let kids do, I hope the Bulls do a fair amount of lounging themselves on Wednesday, gazpacho or no, and show up to Toledo's Fifth Third Field wielding plenty of weaponry on Thursday morning at 10:35, when they get an early start on erasing the memories of a painful four-game punishment in Columbus, where the last of those games also started at 10:35 a.m. More power to them. And, I hope, to my house.

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