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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Matt. Moore. Matt. Moore. Matt. Moore. Durham. Bulls. Win.

Posted by on Thu, Jul 28, 2011 at 6:00 AM

DBAP/ DURHAM—Matt Moore, promoted to Durham from Class AA Montgomery on July 19, made his second start for the Durham Bulls on Wednesday night. He struck out the first batter he faced, Jose Constanza, on three pitches.

The next man up was Tyler Pastornicky, who was also promoted from Class AA (Mississippi) to Class AAA on July 19. The two players were both born in Florida in 1989. Moore faced Pastornicky in two Southern League games earlier this season, holding him to an infield single in five at-bats. Pastornicky was, in fact, the only player in Gwinnett's lineup last night whom Moore had seen before. He saw him again Tuesday night, from the dugout at the DBAP, when Pastornicky went 2-4 with a first-inning walk and stolen base against Matt Torra & Co.

Moore wanted to be careful with Pastornicky, an aggressive but smart hitter whose father, Cliff, was a cup-of-coffee major-leaguer with Kansas City in the 1980s and then became a scout—a really good one, too. (Here's a good piece about Tyler that talks about both Pastornickies.)

Moore tried to get ahead with two breaking balls, but Pastornicky didn't bite and the pitches missed the strike zone. Pastornicky proceeded to draw a four-pitch walk and and then steal second base: a carbon copy of his first inning at-bat against Torra on Tuesday.

I hope Pastornicky took a picture of second base, or planted the world's tiniest G-Braves flag in it, or made a drawing of it in a pocket-sized journal, or tweeted about the wondrous view from there: something to memorialize or lay claim to the keystone sack for future Braves, and to prove that one of them had been there. Neither he nor anyone else on his team reached second base for the rest of the night.

Matt Moore allowed three other baserunners, all on singles—one of them by Pastornicky, wouldn't you know—and struck out 13 batters in eight scoreless innings to tie a DBAP record held by Wade Davis, who fanned 13 Toledo Mud Hens in 2009, and Jason Hammel, who set the record in 2006.

Through five innings, Moore had struck out nine batters but had thrown just 61 pitches. He threw a 97 mph fastball to Brandon Hicks in the second inning, his top velocity for the night. He threw one other 97 mph fastball, again to Hicks, in the seventh inning, on his 87th pitch of the night. In other words, he wasn't tired at the end of what wound up as a 104-pitch, eight-inning night (Dane De La Rosa pitched the ninth for his third save).

"I expected to come back out for the ninth," Moore said later. I wished Charlie Montoyo had let him do that, face one hitter, and then come and taken him out of the game, so that Moore could have received a standing ovation for the finest pitching performance I've seen at the DBAP in nearly three years of covering the Bulls.

As you might have guessed, the Bulls beat Gwinnett, 4-0. John Matulia and Leslie Anderson hit solo homers off of Braves starter Mike Minor, but the big blow was actually a two-run throwing error by Hicks from third base, on a rather ho-hum play. That made it 3-0 in the third inning, and it might as well have been 13-0. The game took 1:55 to play. It was still so early when the postgame interviews were done that I had time to go out for a beer with Heather before I went home to write.

But it wasn't just the early hour that prompted that beer.

"Good as is discourse, silence is better, and shames it." That's Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essays I've been reading. It's a pithy little maxim, and as with many of those, it's worth reading on: "The length of the discourse indicates the distance of thought betwixt the speaker and the hearer. If they were at a perfect understanding in any part, no words would be necessary thereon. If at one in all parts, no words would be suffered."

Which is to say, among other things, that if you were at last night's game, then it isn't necessary for me to write anything at all about Matt Moore's performance: everything that needed to be said was contained in his work. I sipped my beer thinking about what I could add—about how I could even describe Moore's start—and kept coming up with not much. The pitches were worth a thousand words.

Part of that, I think, had to do with how easy he made it look. Moore's windup and delivery are as smooth and effortless-looking as Jeremy Hellickson's, but his fastball is faster than Hellickson's. He kept that fastball down in the strike zone better than David Price, another hard-throwing Rays lefty, usually does. His changeup is a mid-80s pill, diving under bats. According to his catcher, Nevin Ashley, who caught Moore 10 times in Montgomery and once in Durham prior to last night, "he really threw his curve ball the best he has all year."

Staked to a 3-0 lead after Hicks's third-inning error, Moore tossed an eight-pitch fourth. The second batter, Wilkin Castillo, singled to left-center field. Moore then displayed another of his gifts: he finishes his delivery with such balance and simplicity that he's ready to field his position immediately, and on his next pitch he speared a hot grounder back to the mound by Jose Constanza and started an inning-ending double play. He tossed a nine-pitch fifth inning and a 12-pitch sixth, fanning Castillo on three pitches. He blew fastballs right past Mauro Gomez in the seventh after falling behind him 2-0 (one called, two swinging). The seventh-inning stretch began at 8:30 p.m. Moore punctuated his night, quietly but indelibly, by throwing another fastball by a mesmerized Constanza to finish off the eighth inning. Constanza didn't even move the bat off his shoulder.

Silence. I made a grand total of five notes about Moore all night. He quieted everyone. After my beer, I came home and sat in a chair I never write in, contemplating. I think I will just leave it at that, and alert you to Moore's next scheduled start at the DBAP, which ought to fall on August 6 versus Lehigh Valley. I am already disappointed that I won't be able to be there for it.

***

Moore's performance was, of course, the thing. But it bears mentioning that part of the reason last night's game took less than two hours to play was Moore's opponent, Mike Minor. Minor was, for much of the game, just as good as Moore. He retired the first seven batters he faced, featuring a 91-93 mph four-seamer, a changeup that sunk beautifully and may actually have been a two-seamer (it clocked in at 86-87 mph), a good breaking ball—in short, the arsenal of a top pitching prospect, which he is. Minor was the No. 7 overall pick of the 2009 draft. Curiously, four of the five hits the left-hander allowed last night were by left-handed hitters. The fifth was a lucky blooper.

John Matulia's one-out, first-pitch homer off of Minor was the result of sheer guesswork. Matulia told us after the game that Reid Brignac—who went 3-4 in his first game since his demotion from Tampa Bay, and would have been 4-4 if not for a fine running catch by Constanza—had observed in the dugout that Minor's first pitch to every batter was a get-ahead fastball. Matulia took that observation to heart, looked for his first-pitch heater, got it and sent it over the right-field wall.

One out later, Brignac (who was in the leadoff slot vacated by Desmond Jennings) flared a broken-bat single to center field, and Ray Olmedo looped a little opposite-field, ground-rules double into the Durham bullpen to put runners at second and third. Felipe Lopez followed with the grounder to third base that Hicks threw away—Mauro Gomez might have been able to get it, but he was at a full stretch for the low-and-wide throw—and both Brignac and Olmedo jaunted home.

Just like that, with little drama or fanfare, at a trot rather than a gallop, on a quiet and oops-sorry error, the Bulls led 3-0. Whatever pressure Moore might have been feeling in his matchup with Minor, Hicks had dispelled it with that play. Four innings later, Leslie Anderson got a misplaced 89-mph fastball from Minor on a 1-1 count and drilled his 13th homer into the right-field seats.

I doubt many people would have predicted that Anderson would be tied for the team lead in homers in late July. There are a number of important things Anderson doesn't do well. He's not much of a fielder, he doesn't run well for a guy who looks like he should, he has an unorthodox swing, and he has drawn only 14 walks in over 350 plate appearances in 2011. (To his credit, he has struck out only 44 times.) But he hasn't shown any disappointment in his removal from the Rays' 40-man roster, not even after the Rays shored up the position in the offseason with Casey Kotchman—an unmistakeable vote of no-confidence in Anderson, who signed a lucrative deal out of Cuba before the 2010 season. Charlie Montoyo was talking the other day about how his "core" guys have kept the Bulls winning despite major roster upheaval over the last couple of weeks, and although he didn't mention names, it's pretty obvious that Anderson is one of them.

***

Some notes:

* Brandon Guyer strained his oblique muscle swinging at a pitch on Tuesday night and was placed on the disabled list. Injuries to the oblique are probably the commonest that arise from swinging a bat—the Rays' John Jaso is out with the same thing right now—and the timetable for returning can vary. Guyer is likely to miss at least two weeks, if the general recovery time holds true for him. He's pretty strong, though, used to play football, so who knows.

* With Guyer out and Desmond Jennings in Tampa, the Bulls' outfield is quite depleted: the printed roster sheet lists just one outfielder, John Matulia. In practice, Leslie Anderson and Russ Canzler are the other two starters in the outfield corners; but as for playing center field, well, let's just say that both of them have all of the necessaries for the position except speed, range, judgment, hands, arm strength and experience.

As a halfway gesture of compensation, the Rays did bestow upon the Bulls another guy who can play the outfield: Montgomery ward Stephen Vogt. Vogt is actually a catcher, but he can also play left field and, if need be, first base. (Hmm, those last two are Leslie Anderson's positions, Vogt hits left-handed like Anderson does, and there was some burbling online last night about the Rays possibly trading first baseman Casey Kotchman. But anyway...)

To make room for Vogt in Durham, the Rays sent catcher Craig Albernaz back down to Montgomery, where he will have played in parts of five of the last six seasons. You can't help feeling bad for Albernaz, a tireless company man who does anything the Rays ask of him with purpose, good cheer and full investment. Unfortunately, he's not much of a hitter and never will be. Vogt is second in the Southern League in RBIs, and his more important statistics compare in many ways to Anderson's: low walk and strikeout rates, the same number of homers (13), and an OPS that is better than Anderson's thanks to about a dozen more extra-base hits—including, I note, six triples. So maybe he's fast enough to play center field, after all.

* Last night, Rob Delaney became the second Bulls pitcher in as many days to fly to the west coast, pitch in a lopsided loss, and be returned to Durham immediately afterward. Jay Buente got that honor on Tuesday. Delaney threw a staggering 66 pitches on Wednesday. He threw 61 in a game on June 25, 2010, when he was a Rochester Red Wing. There's no data available to me for previous years, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Delaney just set a personal high for pitches thrown in a game. I doubt he'll pitch for the Bulls for at least three days, and perhaps more.

* With Delaney following Buente back from the west coast, and with the addition on Adam Russell last night and Cesar Ramos any day now, the Durham bullpen is about to get overcrowded. Presumably yet another reliever will get called up to center row on The Rays Ain't Right, but moves will have to be made in Durham regardless. The easy guess that Brian Baker and Ryan Reid would be the candidates to go to Montgomery (or, in Baker's case, the disabled list; he's got arm fatigue), but that would make Buente or Lance Cormier the likeliest fill-in. Sure, I guess, close enough, why not. While I'm on one quarter of the subject, this is as good a time as any to note that Buente is one of four Hoosiers to play for Durham this season (Nevin Ashley, Chris Bootcheck, Cory Wade).

It's probably pointless to speculate about the pitching puzzle, anyway (and about why Indiana of all places should supply the Bulls with four players this year), with the trade deadline bearing down on us and the Rays now shuttling relievers between Tampa and Durham on a more or less daily basis. More to the point, it's also wrong to waste cluttersome words on trivia like this after Matt Moore's performance last night. We asked him questions, even nerdy ones like why he now pitches from way over on the third-base side of the rubber instead of the first-base side, and he answered them as unassumingly as if we were asking him what toppings he likes on his tacos. But silence—rectified, purified silence, perhaps with a beer in hand—is the appropriate afterthought. Aftershock is more like it.

***

Following Moore's act is unenviable, to say the least, but the Bulls have their best guy to do it on the mound tonight. Alexander Torres faces the Braves' Todd Redmond. Torres has beaten Redmond twice already this year, although that should be qualified: In the first of those games, way back in early April, Redmond went seven innings and allowed just two hits and one unearned run (two errors led to it); the second was a rain-shortened game at Gwinnett which was washed out after six innings and the Bulls up 3-0. In all, Redmond has made four starts versus Durham this season, and he has been excellent: a 2.16 ERA over 25 innings. He won't have to face Desmond Jennings or Robinson Chirinos, whose three solo homers off of Redmond have accounted for half of the runs he's allowed against Durham in 2011.

The Bulls have a two-game lead over Gwinnett with two to play in this series. For the first time in this awkwardly scheduled, hard to grasp season, it seems like the Bulls are finally playing for stakes. Get all-in now, while the games are at home and Matt Moore is dealing.

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