Durham Bulls rally to beat Toledo Mud Hens. Jennings rises to majors. Brignac down to Durham. Moore falls on face. | Sports
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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Durham Bulls rally to beat Toledo Mud Hens. Jennings rises to majors. Brignac down to Durham. Moore falls on face.

Posted by on Sat, Jul 23, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Desmond Jennings was promoted to the major leagues.
DBAP/ DURHAM—Desmond Jennings was supposed to lead off and play center field last night, but an hour before game time he was mysteriously pulled from the Durham Bulls' lineup for what we were later told were "non-medical" reasons.

By then, we media hyenas were already making our silly, slobbering speculations, as if we weren't drooling enough over getting our first look at Matt Moore, the Rays' (and perhaps America's) No. 1 pitching prospect, set to make his Class AAA debut after his promotion from Montgomery, where he threw a no-hitter and was dominating the Southern League.

Leave it to Jennings, who has been the subject of speculation all season long, to upstage Moore's pitching performance, five promising innings of three-hit, one-run ball. In fact, Moore himself upstaged his pitching performance. As he trotted out to the mound to begin the second inning, his cleat got caught in the turf near the first-base line. He began to scamper forward in an attempt to regain his balance while in motion, reached a staggering "run," and finally went into a full-on, arms-out, head-first dive into Scott Strickland's lovingly manicured infield grass. Moore had to wait for his catcher, Nevin Ashley, to stop laughing hysterically before he could start his warmup pitches. The Mud Hens clucked at him from their dugout. Moore proceeded to throw 15 of his next 24 pitches for balls.

After the game, Jennings was called up to Tampa, where he is expected to play left field and hit leadoff. There had been rampant speculation that B. J. Upton, the Rays' center fielder, was going to be traded—he was pulled from the Rays' blowout loss at Kansas City in the eighth inning—but instead, the corresponding roster move took us by surprise, because it didn't involve an outfielder: shortstop Reid Brignac was optioned to Durham.

Oh, and the Bulls rallied to beat Toledo, 4-3.

Plenty more to follow. One note of logistical importance: Sunday's game time has been moved from 5:05 p.m. back to 7:05, due to the continued heat. Ahh, much better. Now read on.

Oh, we'll fall for anything. It's true of us panting reporters, who wait for milkbones like spaniels, and it's true of Matt Moore, who provided all the treats we'd really need with his second-inning face-plant. As for the Jennings foofaraw, one can't help but feel slightly silly getting all wrapped up in it. Sure, it's in the job description, and Twitter is a fun little toy, but it was also obvious that something was afoot and we'd hear about it, whatever it was, after the game. Later, Montoyo told us that all he knew was that the Rays told him to take Jennings out of the lineup and nothing more. Then Jennings was called into Montoyo's office to sign something, and everyone started raising eyebrows. Jennings re-emerged, had nothing to add, and left. We hung around, looking for clues. None were forthcoming.

So now we know: Jennings to Tampa (actually Kansas City, where the Rays will be all weekend). Probably more to come. The Rays now have nine players who can man the outfield. Jennings's replacement of Brignac rather than an outfielder only leads to more speculation: namely, that the Rays are going to trade for a shortstop, given that they're now left with Elliot Johnson and Sean Rodriguez, who haven't done much with the bat this season. The popular rumor is that they're going to swing a deal for Washington's Ian Desmond, last seen at the DBAP in 2009 as a Syracuse Chief. And so on.

One thought about this: People have wondered what took Tampa so long to promote Jennings. It's probable that they would have done so sooner had Jennings not suffered a broken finger shortly before the All-Star break. He was the Bulls' designated hitter on returning until finally getting back into the outfield on Thursday night. The Rays may simply have been waiting to make sure he was fully ready to play in the field before bringing him up. Also, they have more outfielders than they know what to do with, and are probably trying to figure out how to clear up that muddle even as they add to it with Jennings. Here's betting that they have more moves to make, and soon.

***

On to the game, no? Is it coincidental that Moore threw only nine of 24 pitches for strikes in the second inning, right after falling on his face? His catcher, Nevin Ashley, went out to the mound after Moore walked his second consecutive batter with two outs. Both men told us that the meeting there was about re-establishing Moore's composure and readjusting his delivery; it was mostly to do with his wrist, Moore said later, a mechanical slippage owing to laziness which was making the ball cut too much. "I knew immediately what it was," he said, "it just took me a couple of extra pitches to figure it out."

Presumably, Ashley's mound visit was part of the figuring, but I prefer picturing him trotting out to his battery-mate, smiling and saying to Moore: "Hey Matt. Remember that time? When you fell on your face coming out the mound?" Then he pats him on the fanny and trots back to home plate.

Moore is a soft-spoken, agreeable 22-year-old, but could pass for a high schooler if you put him in a bad haircut, an oversized t-shirt and cargo shorts. He was in good humor about his nosedive after the game, breaking into a wide smile when it was brought up: "You know what? I love when things like that happen to me. I light people up when it happens to them. A little payback out there. I lay there for second just trying to play it off, but it was right in the middle of the field. Everybody saw it."

Those walks (neither of which scored) were two of three blips on Moore's radar, the other being a long homer he allowed to Toledo's Ryan Strieby in the fourth inning, the only run he gave up in five innings. Moore did think, though, that he made "mistakes every at-bat. [I was] fighting to keep the ball down." That sounds like a strangely negative assessment of a Triple-A debut that featured seven strikeouts, a fastball that hit 96 mph on the radar gun, and a slider and changeup that were both plus pitches at their best (it was fun watching Casper Wells swing and miss at consecutive changeups in the second, and Moore's slider really clicked in the fourth). But if you peer underneath the results, you can see those mistakes hidden beneath. Of Moore's 89 pitches, only 52 were strikes. The Mud Hens swung only 33 times, which suggests that they were recognizing Moore's pitches out of the strike zone and laying off of them. He threw first-pitch balls to seven of the first nine men he faced. He probably also needs a fourth pitch at some point.

But when he came out of the game—his first, let's remember, in Triple-A—Moore had allowed just the one run on Strieby's homer, and the score was tied 1-1. Brandon Guyer had opened the scoring with a first-inning solo homer off of Toledo starter Andy Oliver.

The real fall-on-face was actually performed by Moore's replacement, Jay Buente, who threw Timo Perez a first-pitch fastball to begin the sixth inning, and Perez whistled it over the right-field wall for a go-ahead home run: if not a face-plant, at least a palm-to-face. Buente never quite got his face out of his palm. In the seventh inning, he allowed three straight one-out singles—two of them dinks, to be fair—and, with the help of Ashley's throwing error on a stolen base attempt, allowed a third Toledo run. He was replaced by Lance Cormier, who allowed a fourth single to load the bases for Timo Perez.

Timo Perez is 36 years old (and his given name is Timoniel, which is awesome). He is best known to history for a ruinous baserunning blunder in Game One of the 2000 World Series. Just over a month after his big-league debut with the New York Mets (he played in Japan for three seasons before that), Perez was on base when Todd Zeile hit a long first-inning drive to the outfield. Perez was sure it was going to be a home run, and so he started to trot around the bases. Instead, the ball hit off the wall, and Perez was thrown out at home—in the first inning of the World Series' first game. The Yankees wound up winning the game in extra innings, 4-3, and would go on to win the series.

Some guys find their way into big situations without even knowing it. Perez had untied the game against Buente one inning earlier, and now he stepped in against Cormier with a chance to put it away: bases loaded, one out, 3-1 Toledo. But Cormier made good pitches and struck Perez out. He got Strieby to fly out to center field to end the threat.

Perhaps the difference in the game was this: Charlie Montoyo pulled his young, hard-throwing left-handed starter before he got into anything like serious trouble, sending him to the showers confident and happy. Toledo manager Phil Nevin didn't. His own hard-throwing lefty, Andy Oliver, was actually better than Moore over six innings. Other than Guyer's homer in the first inning, a middle-in fastball that Guyer turned on and jacked over the Blue Monster, Oliver allowed only one runner to reach second base, on a wild pitch. He had the Bulls otherwise mastered, with eight strikeouts (including Dan Johnson twice) and no walks on 97 pitches.

It was very, very hot yesterday, and I suspected that the heat was part of the reason Montoyo pulled Moore after five innings and 89 pitches. I thought that there would at least be warmup action in the Mud Hens' bullpen after the long, long top of the seventh inning, with its mid-inning pitching change and fraught bases-loaded situaton that Cormier escaped. Oliver sat for a long time.

Nonetheless, he returned to pitch the bottom of the seventh inning with no relief ready at hand. Leslie Anderson lined an opposite-field single off the Blue Monster, and Daniel Mayora chopped a double over the head of third baseman Danny Worth and into the Mud Hens' dormant bullpen. That put the tying runs in scoring position, and now Daniel Schlereth got up and started loosening. Oliver proceeded to throw a wild pitch, scoring Anderson and moving Mayora to third. No outs, 3-2, Toledo.

The infield came in, just as it had an inning earlier for Durham when Max St. Pierre chopped an RBI single through it. And it happened again: Nevin Ashley bounced one through the left side to score Mayora, and in about two minutes the Mud Hens' hard-earned 3-1 lead was gone. 3-3.

Now Schlereth relieved Oliver, who threw his hat down angrily in the Mud Hens' dugout. Schlereth (son of ex-footballer Mark) then threw his own wild pitch, moving Ashley to second base, and Ray Olmedo sacrificed Ashley to third base. With one out now, John Matulia, Jennings's replacement in the lineup, took care of Jennings's business, making Montoyo look like a genius for letting him hit in Jennings's leadoff spot by poking an opposite-field double to left field. That scored Ashley with the go-ahead run. The Bulls kept their lead and won.

I've wondered before what it is exactly that Class AAA managers do, given the instability of their rosters. That's not to say that what they do isn't valuable, but what is it? You can't get too attached to your players, because what you wish for them is that they get called up. You can't make much in the way of plans, since the front office is likely to gum them up at any moment. You struggle to generate team identity to any significant degree, what with players coming and going, and what with their different circumstances (rising, falling, holding steady, rehabbing, etc.) and statuses.

What you can do is set them up to succeed. Montoyo did that for Moore. Nevin didn't for Oliver. Granted, Nevin may have been under orders to let Oliver throw 100+ pitches no matter the outcome, but it cost Oliver, a second-round draft pick who has struggled this season, both a victory and, perhaps, some confidence. Instead of thinking back through his superb first six innings, he'll probably groan as he plays back in his mind the three-batter sequence in the seventh that undid those six innings. Meanwhile, Matt Moore laughed off his see-you-next-pratfall in the infield: Montoyo caught him before he fell off the mound.

Perez's failure to add insurance runs may have opened the door for the Bulls to get back in the game, but Toledo was still down by just a run and got help from Durham to try tie it back up. In the top of the eighth, Casper Wells led off with a grounder to the left of second base that Ray Olmedo let go off his glove into shallow center field for an error. Opportunistically, Wells dashed for second base and made it in safely—a hustle play that he must have felt good about, having struck out in his previous three at-bats, in his first game with the Mud Hens since being optioned down from Detroit, where he had spent the whole year as a fourth outfielder.

The moment had tie-ballgame written all over it, because the Bulls lead the league in unearned runs allowed: It's not so much that their fielding is bad (although it is) as it is that they allow other teams to exploit the bad fielding for runs. Here we go again, it seemed.

So Cormier promptly picked Wells off of second base. Welcome back to Triple-A, pal. Now go siddown.

And that was it. Cormier retired the next two hitters in the eighth inning, getting a well-deserved win, his fourth, in relief. Rob Delaney, whom Montoyo praised effusively after the game, tossed a 1-2-3 ninth, adding two strikeouts to the Bulls' cumulative total of 13 for the night. Delaney has allowed only a single run since June 4, and has lowered his ERA to 1.81. He has emerged as the Bulls' most dependable reliever.

Durham held onto its half-game lead in the South Division. (Both the Bulls and Gwinnett have won seven of their last 10 games.) The Bulls also cooled off Toledo, which had won six straight games and 10 of 11 (yet came into the game just 46-54, last in their division).

***

The locker room was full of strange faces. I talked with Nevin Ashley and John Matulia and Marquis Fleming—who was promptly sent back down to Montgomery to make room for Dane De La Rosa, who returns Saturday after making a one-appearance major-league debut with the Rays this week. Matt Torra probably crossed my path but I didn't track that. Joe Bateman's back, but he dressed and left before I could catch up with him. (I will, soon.) Fleming was super-pleasant to talk to, told his own story of clutzing around on the field (he had a fielding flub in Rochester the other day that sounded as though it made him look like a Vaudevillian kicking a hat). I asked him how he managed to strike out 85 batters in less than 60 innings this year in Montgomery, and he said it's because of his changeup, which is his out-pitch. Although it's a standard circle-change, it has all kinds of life and movement, Fleming said, and reminded one of his coaches of a screwball and another of a splitter; apparently it breaks differently depending on its mood, independent of Fleming's intention. Fleming is almost sure to be back this season—roster expansion on September 1 will see to that if injuries or trades don't—and I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch.

As expected, Brian Baker's return to the bullpen lasted exactly one turn through the starting rotation. The Rays have decided to keep Alex Cobb in Tampa, thereby giving the team a six-man rotation for now. Some of that has to do with limiting the workload of Jeremy Hellickson, who is about 40 innings shy of his career high with over two months left to play this year. There's also some concern about Wade Davis, who returned from the disabled list and was shelled in Kansas City last night. Jeff Niemann has missed time with an injury, as well, and there's the whispered possibility that the Rays might deal James Shields.

And that is all in the service of Brian Baker's next start, Tuesday against Gwinnett, the fifth time he will have faced them this year (he has done well, allowing four earned runs in 16 innings against the G-Braves). Until then, the starters will be Alex Torres (Saturday), Andy Sonnanstine (Sunday) and Matt Torra (Monday).

But don't get too comfortable with any of this. The trade deadline is just over a week away, for one thing, and for another Reid Brignac's return could mean an immediate ripple in the Bulls' infield pool (is it big enough for Brignac, J. J. Furmaniak, Felipe Lopez, Daniel Mayora and Ray Olmedo?). Dirk Hayhurst, currently on the disabled list, will presumably return to reclaim his spot in the starting rotation, sending Baker bumping up against Ryan Reid, who's standing in Baker's long-man role. And so on.

That's the muddle. The clearness is that we're settling into a stretch in which the Bulls are playing 18 of 20 games at home (this year's International League schedule is a muddle itself), so we'll get to see it all work itself out right before our eyes, and we can ask the players—these powerless, mostly underpaid pawns toiling under the capricious control of unseen bosses—to try to tell us what living in the muddle is like.

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