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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bulls Beat Braves; Hernandez Kills 'Em Softly

Posted by on Tue, Apr 14, 2009 at 1:31 AM

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DBAP/DURHAM-- Bulls pitcher Carlos Hernandez speaks like he pitches: softly. Although I caught one radar reading at a suspicious 92mph last night on the scoreboard, his fastball generally hovered around 86-87mph, and his offspeed stuff closer to 80. He surrendered singles to the first two batters of the game and then loaded the bases with a walk. But he fanned Barbaro Canizares (what a name!) and then got a double-play grounder to get out of the inning.

The Braves didn't get another hit off of him.

With his array of sub-90mph pitches, you'd never call Hernandez a dominator on the mound, but he used to be. In 2002, he was part of a trio of young guns (along with Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller) who began the year with the Houston Astros. Just 22 years old, Hernandez started 21 games for the Astros and won seven games, pitching 111 innings. He told me after the game that he routinely threw 94-95 mph then, with a changeup and curveball as well.

But Hernandez injured his shoulder late that season, and his career was totally derailed for years afterward. He has had two major surgeries, and since 2006 he has pitched just 40 professional innings (he missed all of 2007). He said he has learned a cutter, which uses more elbow and less shoulder, and which he showed last night. He had Gwinnett's batters off balance after his rough opening, and although he walked three of them, he struck out four before reaching his pitch limit in the fifth inning.

After the game, the cordial, polite Venezuelan told me that he felt "out of whack" in the first inning, which he attributed partially to not having pitched for two weeks and partially to being unused to cold weather -- it was cool and damp last night at the DBAP. (It's so easy to overlook the circumstantial obstacles that players have to overcome every day: Weather, rustiness, fatigue, personal distractions, etc.) But he said he felt "lucky" to have escaped the opening frame unscathed -- he suggested that I might substitute a word other than "lucky" if I had one (I don't) -- and then settled into a groove. He also made a superb fielding play in the fourth inning, diving for a trickler down the third base line and firing a laser from his knees to catch Canizares. Hernandez may not blow anyone away anymore, but he has poise and know-how. Although he threw only 41 of his 75 pitches for strikes, some of the balls seemed tactical.

In the locker room he told me he felt "blessed" to still be pitching -- he had seriously considered retirement due to his shoulder troubles -- and he looked relieved that his first start as a Bull was a success. Surrounded in the rotation by hard-throwers, Hernandez's crafty repertoire of offspeed stuff is intriguing to watch, a change of pace (sorry) from his colleagues; and if you can hold steady as a lefthander, there's always an opening to the majors. Hernandez said he felt strong physically and mentally, and it will be interesting to see how things progress for him here in Durham.

The game itself was strange and moved erratically. The Bulls won 3-0 but stranded 13 baserunners, going in order in only one inning. Meanwhile, the Braves failed to get a hit from the first inning until the seventh: so the game had a peg-leg gait to it, the Bulls laboring through busy but often scoreless innings while the Braves ghosted quickly through theirs. Jason Childers, Randy Choate and Dale Thayer combined for 4 1/3 scoreless relief innings. The Bulls fireman corps will have to stand tall this year: With Tampa's front office imposing a strict 75-pitch limit on its starters, we will have to get used to seeing a parade of relievers nightly. The seven-inning start is a thing of the past. Part of Manager Charlie Montoyo's job will be to make ample use of his bullpen without overtaxing it.

That's not Montoyo's only puzzle. His daily lineup has only one constant: Reid Brignac batting second and playing shortstop. (Brignac doubled and tripled last night.) The rest of the lineup is up for grabs on any given night. There have been at least two players at every other position; Justin Ruggiano has already played all three outfield positions. Bulls players had better show up at the DBAP each day with multiple gloves (Elliot Johnson played second base and right field on Sunday; Adam Kennedy first and second), and they might want to bring something to read, too -- there may be no telling who plays and who sits each game, although centerfield may have just been locked down by the arrival of Matt Joyce (he was sent down from Tampa to make room for B. J. Upton, who returned from an injury).

Given that we'll probably see four pitchers and a different lineup nearly every night, we should look at the 2009 Bulls differently than we may be accustomed to doing. This will be a patchwork quilt of a year, and I'm looking forward to asking Charlie Montoyo about the particular challenge of managing the team. I would have last night, but your intrepid greenhorn got lost in the corridor and couldn't find Montoyo's office. Let's try that again tomorrow.


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