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Monday, May 18, 2009

Price As Advertised

Posted by on Mon, May 18, 2009 at 1:42 AM

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="261" caption="David Price threw five hitless innings"]David Price threw five hitless innings[/caption]DBAP/ DURHAM---On a chilly, clammy night at the DBAP last night, we saw the David Price we expected in 2009, and then some: In his five innings of work -- 82 pitches, 50 strikes -- Price (pictured, left) threw a no-hitter (!). Picking up where Mitch Talbot left off the night before, Price used his slider to great effect. The pitch had superb down-sweeping action, and he mixed it cannily with a low-90s fastball and a fading changeup to stymie the Rochester Red Wings. (Rochester, by the way, won the game, 3-2.)

After the game, when I asked manager Charlie Montoyo about the effectiveness of Price's slider, Montoyo made an excellent point after quickly declaring Price's start "his best outing so far": "You could tell it was a slider tonight," he said, meaning that the pitch had its own distinct character in Price's repertoire. Sometimes, if a pitcher lacks proper care and execution, it can be hard to tell a slider from a changeup from a cutter. Not so last night. Price's pitches were crisp and purposeful, and he worked quickly; no sooner did catcher John Jaso return the ball to him than the tall lefty seemed ready to throw his next pitch. "It was good to finally be back," he acknowledged, obviously aware that it had been a while since he'd had a dominant performance. He was aggressive and intelligent on the mound, throwing first-pitch strikes to 12 of the 17 batters he faced and mixing up his pitches expertly.

The only two blemishes were consecutive walks that Price issued in the fourth inning, which were helped along by home plate umpire Jason Klein's stingy strike zone. A couple of times, Price grimaced when close pitches were called balls. But Price has uncommon maturity for his age, and he simply took a breath after each close call and went back to work, attacking the hitter with each pitch. In one stretch, he retired six straight batters via strikeouts -- he had nine overall, and no one hit a grounder off of him all night, only harmless pop flies -- and four of those hitters were caught looking. That's to say that Price wasn't just throwing, he was pitching, changing speeds and locations so effectively that the Rochester hitters were frequently frozen at the plate and watched strikes pass them by. Still, when Price needed to bear down, he threw his riding fastball for strike three more than once, letting the slider do its work as a destabilizing pitch. He generated 16 swings-and-misses. If he pitches like this regularly, Price can't possibly be expected to remain in Durham long.

There's been much chatter about another new pitch Price is experimenting with: a "spike curve," which is similar to the knuckle curve that was part of Mike Mussina's arsenal. Price threw exactly one spike curve tonight, and it was quite obvious when he did it: it bowed loosely toward the plate and failed to break down at all; John Jaso had to leap to his feet to glove it. "I just didn't have a feel for it," Price told me after the game. I'm not sure he needs the pitch yet, especially given that he's still mastering the changeup; adding the spike-curve right now would be like trying to learn Portuguese when you're still working on your Spanish. Actually, it might be more like trying to learn Khmer when you're still getting the hang of Swahili.

Oddly, Price told me that he didn't feel good during his warmups. But sometimes, he added, those are the games when you're surprised to discover your best stuff.

It was a quiet night at the DBAP. The attendance was allegedly 4,957, and if that's the case, they were among the quieter almost-5,000 people ever assembled in a place that wasn't a cathedral. You could hear outfielders calling off infielders on pop flies ("I-got-it-I-got-it-I-got-it!"); and if you had gotten into an animated discussion with your friends in the stands about, say, the controversial application of micro-oxygenation in winemaking, you might have risked distracting the players. The Bulls took a 2-0 lead in the first inning on a Justin Ruggiano double and an RBI groundout by Chris Richard, but they wouldn't score again. Julio DePaula was knocked around for two runs in the sixth, and Jason Childers took the loss, his first of the year, by allowing a run in the seventh.

With all eyes on Price, one could be forgiven for failing to follow the exploits of his mound opponent, Phillip Humber. Like Price, Humber was a first-round draft pick, taken third overall by the New York Mets in 2004 out of Rice University, where he and one of his classmates, former Bull (and current Tampa Bay Ray) Jeff Niemann, helped lead the Owls to their first College World Series championship. In 2005, Humber underwent Tommy John surgery, but his recovery went well enough to leave him a still-viable prospect: He was a key component of the trade between the Mets and the Minnesota Twins that sent Johan Santana to New York. Yet he had a stretch of such poor effectiveness that the Twins risked designating him for assignment about a month ago (he managed to clear waivers and was sent to Rochester).

Based on tonight's performance, the Twins were lucky Humber wasn't snapped up by another team during the waiver period. After some rockiness in the first inning, during which his fastball kept sailing out of the strike zone, Humber settled down. After the game, Charlie Montoyo was impressed with the way Humber made adjustments with his breaking ball. Although the Bulls put a few runners on base -- and Justin Ruggiano rocketed a 400-foot out to center field (he'd qualify for Roodge status had he not also struck out twice) -- they never got comfortable enough to mount a rally. The closest they came was on Jon Weber's fourth-inning double, which would have scored Ray Olmedo, who had singled before a walk to John Jaso; but Olmedo was caught stealing. The Bulls had only one baserunner after Weber's double, and he (Reid Brignac) was picked off after singling with two outs in the seventh inning. Four of the last six Bulls hitters struck out against reliever Sean Henn, who took Durham's left-handed batters down with a big-bending breaking pitch. Jaso grounded out to second to end the game.

I mention Jaso's at-bats because he's been in a terrible slump lately. He's 1-19 over his last six games, and 3-28 (.107) in his last 10. His plate judgment remains good -- five walks against only three strikeouts -- but he looks uncomfortable and impatient, like he's straining. Montoyo told me "he's a better hitter than that," and commented that Jaso is "pulling off the ball" when he swings. His work behind the plate has continued to be solid, but maybe Jaso needs a session with a hitting coach to reset his approach and mechanics. If he can be a force down near the bottom of the lineup -- he usually hits eighth -- the Bulls will a be a markedly more dangerous nine.

The line of the night goes to Bulls' Media Relations Director and all-around Cruise Director Matt DeMargel. Rummaging around in the control booth near the end of the game, he found a strange-looking jar that someone had squirreled away. Looking pained, he asked no one in particular, as though unburdening himself of an especially troublesome cosmic question, "Why do we have shea butter foot cream in our frickin' drawer here?" (The "frickin'," by the way, is [sic].)

The Bulls send Wade Davis to the mound against the Red Wings tomorrow at 7:05 at the DBAP. Bring your woolies (or someone to snuggle with)! It's gonna get cold.

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