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Friday, July 29, 2011

Gwinnett Braves shut out Durham Bulls: Fame and Fortugno

Posted by on Fri, Jul 29, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Mauro Gomez had the game-winning hit for Gwinnett last night.
DBAP/ DURHAM—When your team goes 17 2/3 innings without scoring a single run and still gains a split of two games, you go to sleep happy. Gwinnett Braves' manager Dave Brundage ought to be slumbering deeply after what his team pulled off over the last 48 hours. They won easily on Tuesday night, 9-3, but didn't score in the ninth inning of that game. Then they were shut out on Wednesday by the Bulls' Matt Moore, whose performance that night is likely to pass into the realm of legend.

On Thursday, the Bulls' Alexander Torres shut out the Braves for 5 2/3 more innings, although he worked hard to get through them, frequently pitching behind in the count. He began 14 of 22 at-bats with balls out of the strike zone, and the final out he got was emblematic of his performance: Torres struck out Mauro Gomez swinging, but it took him nine pitches to do it.

Meanwhile, Gwinnett starter Todd Redmond, who has faced the Bulls something like 74 times over the last three seasons, was throwing shutout baseball of his own. Redmond doesn't throw hard at all, but when he's got command of his pitches, especially his slider, he keeps hitters off balance, which he did expertly last night.

Redmond's a former 39th-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates back in 2004, traded to Atlanta for Tyler Yates in 2008. He's from St. Petersburg, Fla., so he must have some feelings about facing the top farm team of his hometown Rays. (I'll try to ask him about that if I can find him tonight.) Also, after "MISCELLANEOUS" in the G-Braves game notes prepared for the media, the text reads: "Enjoys hunting in his spare time, long walks on the beach and UF Gators football." Ladies?

It's tempting to say that the difference in last night's game was the one-third of an inning more than Torres that Redmond pitched. Joe Bateman spelled Torres with a runner on first and two outs, wild-pitched him to second, and then, after a tough, eight-pitch at-bat of his own, got Brandon Hicks to hit a dink pop-out to first base to end the inning (thanks to a nice sliding catch by Dan Johnson not far from the pitcher's mound).

Bateman worked around a two-out single in the seventh, but that pesky Tyler Pastornicky sort of wanded his bat at one of Bateman's sliders with one away in the eighth, and singled to right field. Stefan Gartrell hit into a forceout. Bateman had thrown 26 pitches, and although he's got a rubber arm, they were a rather hard 26, just as Torres's even 100 were hard—especially compared to Matt Moore's 104 the previous night, when Moore barely seemed to be trying. Had Bateman not been needed until the start of the seventh inning, which is probably when Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo was hoping to send him in, he might still have been feeling fresh at this point. Those eight sixth-inning pitches Bateman threw had taken a toll.

In the bullpen, Adam Russell was ready to make his Bulls debut, but Montoyo stuck with Bateman. Mauro Gomez stepped to the plate, and he was due—especially, it seemed, after fighting Torres for so many pitches two innings earlier. Montoyo has the habit, in my experience, of leaving pitchers in games one batter too long, but his thinking here made some sense: the next batter would be Hicks, the first man Bateman had faced in the sixth; he might have trying to get Bateman through a full turn of the lineup before going to Russell.

I didn't think it would work, though. Gomez just seemed like he was certain to get a hit—he's a fairly cagey hitter who I thought wouldn't be fooled by Bateman's sidearm delivery and tricky slider. I called out loud for a double to the gap. Not quite: Gomez laced a high, opposite-field liner into the right-field corner and chugged to third base for a run-scoring triple. 1-0, Gwinnett.

Bateman came out of the game for Russell, and Russell gave up a first-pitch double to the gap (I predicted it one batter too soon, I guess) by Hicks. 2-0, Gwinnett, and that's how it ended. The Braves' hard-throwing relievers, especially Arodys Vizcaino, Juan Abreu and Jairo Asencio, preserved Redmond's shutout. Asencio is perfect this year in 19 save opportunities.

Right now, the G-Braves resemble their parent club: really good pitching, a terrific bullpen, and just enough hitting. They pulled back to within one game of the Bulls in the IL South Division, with a chance to tie it up again tonight in the series' fourth and final game. Manager Dave Brundage, who is a pleasant interviewee, was asked about his familiarity with Montoyo's Bulls—they've been going at it for five years now—and after complimenting Montoyo and his four-years-reigning division champs, said, "It's fun to beat 'em."

Despite the 2-0 final score, this wasn't quite the pitcher's duel that Wednesday's game was—or would have been without Brandon Hicks's crucial two-run throwing error. Redmond is a lull-you-to-sleep sort of pitcher, and Torres had to work very, very hard to get his results. His changeup remains his best pitch, and he threw it early in the count a lot to the Braves—by design, he said later, because he was facing them for the fourth time this season and wanted to keep them off his fastball.

That was enough to hold the Braves scoreless, and it seemed like a bit of an evolution for Torres (rhymes with scoreless, okay), who stayed focused all the way through each at-bat. He's wound rather tight, and early in the season he often looked frustrated when things didn't go his way. Last night, he hung in there like a prizefighter outjabbing and thus outlasting outlasting his opponent. Torres average nearly seven pitches for each of the five at-bats that ended in a strikeout, and it was encouraging to see him battle for those Ks. He also made two good plays in the field, covering first on speedy Jose Constanza's leadoff grounder to start the game and beating him there, and then sprinting in to catch Jeff Fiorentino's botched sacrifice bunt attempt, a little pop-up, in the fifth.

He also, most importantly, kept the ball down, getting nine outs on the ground. It helped that the middle infield was manned by Reid Brignac—it's fun to be reminded what a good fielder he is—and Ray Olmedo. Olmedo made a couple of plays last night that Felipe Lopez, who was traded to Milwaukee yesterday, probably wouldn't have. The Bulls' infielding is suddenly much, much better than it was 48 hours ago.

The Bulls had their chances in this game, especially late. Arodys Vizcaino came into a scoreless game in the seventh inning, two nights after making his Triple-A debut in that same inning of an easy Braves win. The pressure here was much higher, of course, and Vizcaino rose to it. He has wonderful raw stuff: a fastball that sits at 95-96 mph and touched 97 on one pitch to Daniel Mayora last night; and an excellent curve that he throws anywhere from 79-83 mph—that variation in velocity keeps hitters off balance. But note that, after John Matulia took one of Vizcaino's fastballs over the Blue Monster for an opposite-field home run on Tuesday night, the Bulls got two more hits off of Vizcaino on Thursday, consecutive one-out singles by Mayora and Olmedo; they both wound up in scoring position with one out after Olmedo singled and then took second on the throw to third to try to gun down Mayora.

The tying runs were in scoring position, but Vizcaino's superior stuff won out. He struck out the side, fanning Russ Canzler, Nevin Ashley and J. J. Furmaniak. In all, Vizcaino has gotten five of six outs via strikeouts against the Bulls in two appearances this series. He'll probably get hit around if he goes to the majors right now, but it won't be too long before he's ready to add to the Braves' already formidable bullpen, led by Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters.

Canzler was part of another strikeout in the following inning, this one a de facto game-decider. The third of Gwinnett's four relievers, Dustin Richardson, was the only one who really struggled. The lefty's job was to face the four left-handed hitters at the top of Charlie Montoyo's batting order—a strategic mistake by Montoyo, perhaps, although it nearly worked out anyway. Richardson walked Brignac to lead off the eighth, after Brignac took two very close pitches—Richardson looked chapped after his last pitch wasn't called a strike. John Matulia grounded out, advancing Brignac to second. Leslie Anderson singled Brignac to third, and then Dan Johnson walked to load the bases.

With the right-handed Canzler coming up, Brundage went to Juan Abreu, yet another righty reliever who throws 95+ mph out of the Braves' bullpen. Abreu is having a breakout year, his first in Triple-A. In 48 innings, he has allowed just 34 hits, struck out 68 batters, and is allowing a batting average-against of just .193. From a statistical distance, you might confuse him with another Abreu: Winston, the former Bull.

The one problem with (Juan) Abreu is walks—27 allowed in those 48 innings. (Winston's walks have increased this year, too. He and Juan were both born in the Dominican Republic, three days apart—okay, and eight years.) His full name is Juan de Dios Abreu, and Juan of God is in the mold of the flamethrowing late-inning guy who isn't always sure where the thunderbolts he throws are going to land. He threw ball one not far from Canzler's head, and fell behind 3-1 before throwing a fastball that, according to replays we watched, should have been ball four inside.

It was called a strike, though, drawing the crowd's loud ire, and it ran the count full. Somehow, you knew that was it. Canzler fouled off a pitch, but he struck out the next one, and Mayora grounded into a fielder's choice to end the inning and, basically, the game. Jairo Asencio struck out the bottom third of the Bulls' lineup, in order, in the ninth.

It's been really fun to watch so many major-league arms these last two nights at the ballpark. For a pitching chauvinist like me, nothing makes baseball games click like strong, purposeful, superior moundwork. The difference in last night's game—other than the dubious strike call for Abreu against Canzler, the fulcrum on which the game's outcome tilted—was the one between the Braves' upwardly-mobile bullpen hurlers and the Bulls' unfulfilled aspirants: Joe Bateman, who struck dirt on the west coast and lost last night; and Adam Russell, who couldn't stick in Tampa Bay and cost Bateman a second run. It makes sense that the Braves' closer is named Asencio: he and his mates are rising. Bateman—well, sometimes you'd rather the fish didn't bite what he puts on the hook.

***

Some notes:

* I've suspected for some time now that Dan Johnson is hurt and just playing through it. More evidence: last night, Richardson fell behind Johnson, 2-0, and then threw him a 92 mph fastball. Johnson swung and missed. Last year, if you threw Dan Johnson a 2-0 fastball, he pretty much hit it for a homer every time. Johnson was hit by a pitch way back in April. I don't know if his hand is still bothering him or something else, but I'm disinclined to blame the steep drop in his numbers from 2010 to 2011 on immeasurable factors like age, on adjustments pitchers have made against him, or on flukes like BABIP. He just doesn't look comfortable at all at the plate anymore.

* Felipe Lopez was traded to Milwaukee yesterday for cash—or the proverbial "bag of baseballs." That, by the way, isn't just proverbial, and last night Charlie Montoyo had the tale to prove it. According to Montoyo, he was playing for Class A Stockton (Calif.) in 1989 when the team needed pitching, and fast. Stockton's parent club, the California Angels, raided the independent leagues for a former first-round draft pick who had washed out; Stockton paid for the pitcher's services with "two dozen baseballs," said Montoyo—the balls themselves being scarcer and perhaps costlier commodities in the independent leagues at the time than the guys who pitched them.

The pitcher's name was Tim Fortugno (if it was Tim Fortunato he would have been traded for a barrel of sherry). Fortugno finally made it to the majors in 1992, when he was 30 years old. (He and I share the same birthday, I just discovered! Fortugno is 83 years older than I am, though. Actually, Russ Canzler was also born on April 11. Kismet.) Fortugno found his way into the history books that September, when he gave up George Brett's 3,000th career hit. So he was worth two-dozen baseballs, apparently, to the annals of baseball history. For some extra fun, look at the box score in the Brett link: the replacement first baseman for the Angels on GB3K day was Gary Gaetti, who later became the Durham Bulls' hitting coach. Like I said, kismet.

* With Lopez off to the land of Laverne and Shirley (actually Brooks and Dunn), a roster spot needed fillin' in Durham. The Bulls will get outfielder John T. Shelby III from Class AA Montgomery, where he was hitting .259/.294/.448, with 12 homers in 317 at-bats. Only 15 walks, which is a concern. Shelby is a former second baseman, so conceivably he could fill in there if necessary. But with Brignac, Furmaniak, Mayora and Olmedo on the roster, that probably won't be necessary. Shelby is the son of former major-leaguer John "T-Bone" Shelby. Two stories about Shelby III are here and here. Shelby was signed by the Rays just before the season started, on March 29, to plug an outfield hole in Montgomery. He'll do the same in Durham, where infielder J. J. Furmaniak played left field last night. Shelby's nickname, apparently, and wonderfully, is "Treybone."

* Brian Baker is still suffering from a sore/tired arm, and will miss his next start on Saturday. Ryan Reid gets the nod instead. Reid pitched outstanding relief after replacing Baker this past Monday.

* Stephen Vogt, promoted from Montgomery yesterday, was in uniform last night. Vogt had made a nine-hour drive to Durham, so Montoyo didn't play him—he was the only position player on the Bulls' depleted bench. Expect to see him in tonight's lineup. I wouldn't be entirely surprised to see Shelby join him. John Matulia has been in the Bulls' lineup for 13 straight games—you get a prize if you predicted that would happen this season—and could probably use a night's rest. Give Matulia credit for stepping right into the windblown and at times collapsing tent that is the Bulls' roster and holding down his stake. You also get a prize if you predicted that, on July 29, the Bulls could field a lineup that included five players—Nevin Ashley, Matulia, Daniel Mayora, Shelby and Vogt—who were playing for Montgomery one month earlier.

* Andy Sonnanstine starts for Durham tonight in the final game of the series against Gwinnett, which sends Yohan Flande to the mound. Flande last faced the Bulls on July 2, and pitched well—but these Bulls aren't exactly those Bulls. With a win, Gwinnett will win the series, 3-1 and regain a tie with Durham for first place in the division. I'm guessing the Bulls might be doing some snorting at that prospect. The game time starts at 7:05 p.m., by which time the temperature should have dropped down to just 96 degrees. Bring your parkas!

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