Durham Bulls' bullpen blanks Rochester: Two, three, two and two | Sports
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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Durham Bulls' bullpen blanks Rochester: Two, three, two and two

Posted by on Tue, Jul 24, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM—In the second game of Sunday night's doubleheader, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo took advantage of an unusual luxury: a rested bullpen. He needed it, because starter Chris Archer, returning from a oblique strain, was limited to 45 pitches, which translated to 2 2/3 innings of work. It was a seven-inning game, as per minor-league rules in doubleheaders, so four relievers collaborated on 4 1/3 relief innings, allowing two runs. Montoyo did some situational matchup managing, something he seldom does even when's able to. Left-hander Adam Liberatore came in to face one batter, a lefty (who got him for a ground-ball RBI single). Of the four relievers, only one, Bryan Augenstein, threw more than 20 pitches. Augenstein slipped into the victory circle when Henry Wrigley delivered an RBI single in the bottom of the seventh inning.

No doubt Montoyo felt good about the win, about securing it by an adroit cobbling together of reliever-innings after Archer's planned early exit, about the way he was able to get a bunch of restless relievers some leveraged work, and, looking ahead, especially about Monday's scheduled starter. Matt Torra leads the Durham staff in innings pitched (107) and also in innings per start. That number happens to be only around 5 2/3 innings each time out, but never mind that, Montoyo must have thought to himself as he checked his phone for messages from Tampa, leaned back in his office chair, and sipped from a glass of Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2004. For the last few years he had been patiently cellaring the wine in an underground cave built for him by the Bulls front office (its location is known to only two people). Montoyo suspected that this particular vintage might have a delayed renaissance, as some higher-pedigree Rhone-style whites do, because of the higher-than-usual percentage of Roussanne in the encépagement. Delighted, upon opening the bottle, to discover that his gamble on the wine had paid off handsomely, Montoyo sat savoring the the fully-integrated aromatics of...

Enough of that. Someone—let's say the team trainer—burst in at just that moment to let Montoyo know that Matt Torra was ill and would not be able to pitch the next night.

Montoyo spat out the wine in a spray of shock and disgust, ordered pitching coach Neil Allen into his office, and they shotgunned a couple of tallboys of Coors Light and got down to the business of figuring out how they were gonna map out Monday's innings.

Here is what they came up with, in Montoyo's words: "Two, three, two and two." Two innings of Ryan Reid, who had pitched an inning in Sunday's bullpenumbra, three innings of a well-rested Josh Lueke, two innings of Adam Liberatore after Liberatore had done LOOGY duty the night before, and two of Dane De La Rosa, who had been warming up in the bullpen on Sunday night but was never needed, thankfully.

After that? "Albernaz," Montoyo said, as in Craig, and he wasn't joking. Two innings at the most, meaning that, had the game gone to 12 innings or any of the 2-3-2-and-2 guys failed to measure up to their workload, necessitating an earlier entrance from the Bulls' fourth-string (!) catcher/mop-up reliever, Montoyo would have had to consider forfeiting the game.

As it happened, it went just as Montoyo scripted it: Reid (2), Lueke (3), Liberatore (2), De La Rosa (2). When you throw a bullpen parade, you generally expect some rain—the more relievers you use, the likelier it is that one of them will fail. But like the man says, even a blind squirrel is right twice a day, or something like that: The fearsome foursome threw an improbable six-hit shutout and the Bulls beat Rochester, 4-0. Get well, soon, Matt Torra. Or on second thought, don't rush, 'K? What exactly is he sick with, anyway? No one seemed to know, although after the game parts of the clubhouse smelled awfully awfully, if you know what I mean.

Is there much use in trying to say anything coherent about an incoherent game? The day after helping the Bulls lose a lead they would have to reclaim—he issued a leadoff walk and hit batsman in the fifth inning—Ryan Reid started on no notice and gave up two doubles and a walk in two innings of work. But a questionable base-running decision by Rochester's Clete Thomas, who hit one of those doubles, and a fine diving catch of a hot line drive by Tim Beckham, allowed Reid to leave after two scoreless innings. Josh Lueke, whose ERA has been on a long, slow descent toward earth since an early season rocket to Russia—with one more scoreless third of an inning, it'll dip below 5.00 for the first time in 2012—turned in three zeroes, making it harder on himself with a strike-three wild pitch that put a man on first and a throwing error on an admittedly tough play.

The Liberator kept the Red Wings enslaved to their scorelessness, overcoming early wildness and striking out three batters in two innings. And De La Rosa, who I daresay looks kind of like his old self, finally—I'll have to catch up with him soon and find out how he righted himself—threw 94-mph fastballs and snappish breaking balls, fanned three more Red Wings, and sent the Bulls on the road with a shutout.

Go figure. But on the other hand, maybe it adds up perfectly if you use simpler math: the Bulls starting pitching rotation has been awful this year. Might as well cut right to the relievers.

And figure this, too: Nevin Ashley, who looks like a power hitter but isn't (he has averaged about one home run every 60 plate appearances over a 600-game minor-league career), came back from a three-month stint on the disabled list after suffering a fractured wrist and, in his first game in Triple-A since April 27, hit an opposite-field, two-run homer that padded a 2-0 lead to 4-0 in the seventh and removed nagging doubt about last night's outcome. I assume the wrist is fine, then?

(And, by the way, Chris Archer reported that he, too, feels fine after his 41-pitch return to action following his oblique injury. He said he expects to throw 60 pitches in his next start.)

Games like these are weird. It's like the team with the real starting pitcher—in this case, Rochester's Liam Hendriks, a couture Twins prospect whom we've seen before (against the Bulls' Matt Torra, in fact)—is playing a real game; and the other one, the one with the sample sale of relievers, is just scrimmaging. Given that the Bulls' season is basically over, that feeling of a game that didn't quite count was heightened. It almost seemed unfair that the Bulls, with a pitching scratch-track—and a roster that currently has four catchers on it, by the way—should have been able, or even allowed, to win last night.

But as Charlie Montoyo is wont to say, and said again last night, you never know in this game. Not only did they play pass-the-baton on the mound, they made three errant throws in the infield that added three baserunners to Johnny Wholestaff's workload. They were also the victims of a bad call by umpire Gerald Ascani on a play at the plate, costing them a run. (Ascani's strike zone was shaky, too.) Always impatient, their hitters drew but a single walk against the sharpshooting Hendriks, who has allowed only 66 bases on balls in nearly 400 career innings, and two relievers.

Still, the Bulls won. And Ichiro is a Yankee. Kind of a weird day.

So, having burned up his bullpen in two straight games of heavy use, Montoyo needs Tuesday's starter, down in Gwinnett, to eat up some innings. Unfortunately, that starter is Alex Torres, and Torres has not pitched more than five innings in a game all season. Not once—and he has lasted five innings just three times. He has been so totally unable to handle the workload of a starter this year, so utterly undone, that the Rays demoted him to the bullpen for a while, reinstating him to the rotation only because they couldn't really find anyone else. They tried a couple of Biscuits, Shane Dyer and Matt Buschmann, couldn't get them to rise, and poured the gravy back on Torres—who is averaging less than 3 2/3 innings per start this year. In those 11 starts, he has a 7.75 ERA.

As we talked, briefly, barely, almost fearfully about Torres—there was nothing much to say, really; this has been going on with him too long now—that gnomic smile Montoyo will sometimes flash overtook his face. You couldn't help but wonder if he wasn't already arranging in his head the sequence of the few relievers he has available to him after Torres pitches, and maybe also making a mental note to stop by Craig Albernaz's seat on the bus ride down to Georgia and tell him to be ready.

The Bulls play four games at Gwinnett, with whom they are engaged in a pitched battle for last place in the IL South Division, and then four more at Norfolk. After a day off, they return to the DBAP and play 17 of their next 25 games at home, through most of August. Buy Charlie Montoyo a nice bottle of wine—just not from this vintage, okay?

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