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Friday, May 15, 2009

Bulls Beat Bats Again: Practice Makes Imperfect

Posted by on Fri, May 15, 2009 at 1:35 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM---After the Bulls came back from a 5-0 deficit to thump Louisville last night, 11-6, I asked catcher John Jaso (pictured, left) about the pitching performances of Carlos Hernandez (who evened his record at 2-2) and Dale Thayer. Hernandez had been knocked around a little in the first three innings. He really only made three bad pitches, but one was smoked for a leadoff double by Luis Bolivar, who came around to score on a stolen base and a groundout, and the other two were hit for home runs (by a pair of ex-Bulls, Jonny Gomes and Wes Bankston). Thayer was coming off a disastrous outing (scroll down a bit there) in his last appearance on Tuesday, when he imploded after a throwing error by first baseman Chris Richard on what would have been a game-ending double play, and coughed up five ninth-inning runs to lose the game.

Jaso invoked the old baseball adage about luck: Sometimes you make a bad pitch and get away with it. Sometimes you make a great pitch and the hitter lifts a harmless pop-fly that the left fielder loses in the lights for a double. On the other end of things, a hitter may crush a ball for a 400-foot out or send a screaming line drive right at the shortstop; other times, well, you take a weak swing on a pitch out of the strike zone and the left fielder loses your harmless fly ball in the lights. Jaso thought Thayer made good pitches on Tuesday night; they just got hit in the wrong places. A pitcher can't control that.

You can practice all you want in baseball, and although eventually talent and intelligence will usually prevail over a season, a huge and complicated chain of chance operations dictates dozens of outcomes during every game. Some baseball manager -- I think it was Buck Showalter -- once said that you were going to lose 60 games a year and win 60, no matter what a manager did: There would be games when your starter got tagged for seven runs in the first two innings, and others when your hitters scored twelve runs. It was what the manager did with the other forty-odd games that made the difference between going to the playoffs and finishing in last place. In the infrequent circumstances when chance evens itself out and skill opposes skill, that's where managers -- and for that matter, players -- make their hay. You don't get very many opportunities, and in baseball readiness is all: you often get a split-second to make the difference that's there for you to make.

It isn't all that different from life, really. So many of our best efforts get fouled off by the swings of circumstance, and some of our weaker moves result in unforeseen (and unearned) benefits. The best you can do is practice hard, play your best, and hope that those few dozen games in the balance come out on your side, after the inevitable 60 wins and 60 losses are tallied up on the ledger.

When the Bulls fell behind 5-0 after 2 1/2 innings tonight, they appeared to be headed for one of those 60 losses. But Charlie Montoyo didn't think so. He took action.

Jon Weber led off the bottom of third against Bats' starter Daryl Thompson by lifting a high fly ball down the right field line. It turned into a Jeffrey Maier moment: a fan leaned over the railing above the outfield wall and made a nice catch. The umpire signaled home run, and it was 5-1, Louisville.

Or was it? Louisville manager Rick Sweet contended that fan interference had taken place. Although the Bats' rightfielder, Wes Bankston, wouldn't have caught the ball -- it was well over his leaping attempt to catch it -- Sweet thought that, had the fan not interfered, Weber's fly ball would have hit near the top of the railing and stayed in play, rather than clearing it. After the umpires met to discuss the play, they concurred with Sweet (so did I, and most of the press box). Weber was called back from the dugout and reassigned to second base with a double.

Weber wasn't happy, and neither was Montoyo. The latter was so unhappy that he initiated one of those irate-manager tirades, gesticulating with exaggerated hand and arm motions while shouting over the egging noise from the stands. Montoyo seemed to be indicating that the third-base umpire couldn't possibly have seen the play any better than Montoyo did from his spot in the third-base coaching box -- i.e., right next to the umpire. But as he got angrier and angrier, it became clear that what Montoyo was really saying was, "I'm going to get myself ejected from this horses**t game," and the umpire complied by giving Montoyo the heave-ho.

This was a tactical move on Montoyo's part, a way to fire up his team. Managers do the ejection-dance every so often -- the Braves' Bobby Cox holds the record -- but I haven't seen a study of how often it actually works.

Guess what? It worked! Reid Brignac followed Weber's double with a single, then stole second. Justin Ruggiano -- who gets to be called The Roodge tonight (3-4, triple, 3 RBI, 2 walks, 2 stolen bases) -- singled Weber and Brignac home. A pair of flyouts to center sandwiched Joe Dillon's single to left, and then Ray Sadler, well, wouldn't you know it, Ray Sadler hit his second game-tying three-run homer of the year, a moonshot that hit the fiberglass windows of the DPAC. Daryl Thompson hit the showers.

It ought to be said that Daryl Thompson wasn't exactly throwing daggers before his third-inning meltdown. He needed 27 pitches (only 13 of which he threw for strikes) to get through the first inning, walking two batters and allowing a hit but escaping without any runs scoring. His upper-80s fastball was nothing special, and his offspeed stuff was rather dull as well. He was due for trouble, but it may have been Montoyo's performance that brought it on.

The Bulls struck for three more runs in the next inning, in classic good-luck fashion -- or, for Louisville reliever Adam Pettyjohn, bad-luck fashion. Brignac led off with a harmless fly ball to medium left-center that Jonny Gomes seemed to lose in the lights -- the third time in two games that a left fielder has had that problem -- and it fell for a double. Ruggiano sacrificed, a strange thing to ask a power hitter to do with the go-ahead run on second base. But the questionable gambit worked even better than planned: Bats' third baseman Drew Sutton threw away Ruggiano's well-bunted ball, allowing Brignac to score. Chris Richard then hit an apologetic grounder between first and second. First baseman Danny Dorn ranged over but the ball bounced past him. Second baseman Danny Richar fielded it and made a bad throw to Pettyjohn, who was covering first. Richard was safe and advanced to second on Richar's errant throw; Ruggiano went to third. A pair of sacrifice flies scored them both. It was 8-5. The Bats never got closer.

The most remarkable thing about Montoyo's ejection was the effect it had on Bulls' starter Carlos Hernandez -- especially given that Hernandez sat in the dugout for all of the lengthy bottom of the third, his arm cooling off longer than pitchers like. But after his teammates erased the deficit he'd dug for them, Hernandez started pitching with a greater sense of purpose, attacking hitters and, as Jaso put it, "spotting" his pitches better. Over his last three innings, Hernandez allowed just one baserunner (he walked Gomes, who had hit a monster homer off of him, on four pitches). He fanned five of the final nine men he faced, including the last two. Although his stat line won't show it, Hernandez actually pitched rather well, and Jaso commented that the lefthander recovered from his early difficulty with his changeup (Hernandez's go-to pitch) and threw it really well for the rest of the night.

(A side note about Hernandez's performance. Jaso visited him on the mound three times in the first inning. I asked Jaso what he'd said: Were Hernandez's mechanics off? Was he crossing Jaso up? No, Jaso was just trying to get Louisville out of rhythm after Bolivar's leadoff double and stolen base. It worked; Hernandez retired the next three hitters with Jaso's administration of his inning. For all that baseball seems like a game ungoverned by momentum, it's remarkable how much energy players and managers spend trying to manipulate it.)

Did Hernandez ratchet up his game because the Bulls tied it up and got him out of his hole? And did the Bulls find the fire to come back in Montoyo's spark of anger? Pitching coach Xavier Hernandez thought Carlos's renewed vigor owed itself to that; and for his part, Montoyo wasn't all that sorry he got thrown out, since his team came back and won. Who knows? Certainly the evidence was there to support the notion.

I asked Jaso whether it was just my imagination that Hernandez seems to be throwing harder now than he was earlier in the season. Jaso agreed with me; Hernandez was topping out at about 87 mph in his first start, and now he hits 90+ a few times each night. Jaso pointed out that pitchers tend to get less rest between outings during spring training as they try to work themselves into season-ready condition, and it isn't unusual for them to reach April with mild arm fatigue. As they get more and regular days off -- especially starters, who are used to four days between starts -- they tend to build more velocity. It will be interesting to see how Hernandez fares as the season progresses. I confess that I was about to write him off as irreparably damaged goods, but he seems to have turned it around.

Dale Thayer closed out the game with a scoreless ninth tonight, touching 93 mph on the radar gun. He allowed a single but struck out two batters, and he got to make the game's final putout by covering the base on a grounder to first baseman Chris Richard. After Jaso opined that Thayer's terrible Tuesday was nothing but a string of bad luck, I asked Thayer about it (their lockers are adjacent). Thayer is about as mild-mannered as they come, and he, like Jaso, thought he'd made decent pitches on Tuesday. "They just got them," he said. Then he gave me a version of the same baseball truism about luck that Jaso had just delivered. Sometimes you make good pitches but they just get 'em. Practice schmacktice.

After that, I asked Thayer why he thought he still hadn't made the major leagues despite his excellent track record in the minors over six seasons. Was there something the Tampa front office wanted him to change? "They want me to keep the ball down," he said. "I pitch up [in the strike zone] too much." (I've just now remembered that tonight he left a fastball up to Danny Dorn, who fouled it straight back, a sign that Dorn had just missed solid contact. Thayer shook his head, frustrated with himself.) What did Thayer need to do to make that happen? Did he need to make sure he was getting on top of the ball to generate more downward momentum? Drive through with his trailing leg?

Thayer shook his head. "Just practice," he said.

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