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Saturday, June 6, 2009

Bulls Split with Toledo: Juggling With Fire

Posted by on Sat, Jun 6, 2009 at 12:27 AM

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="266" caption="Chris "Juggle Boy" Fowler"]Chris Juggle Boy Fowler[/caption]DBAP/ DURHAM---A special attraction was at the DBAP in Friday night, aside from an iteration of the postgame fireworks that will be ho-hum by early July: Chris "Juggler Boy" Fowler. Fowler made between-inning appearances on the field, juggling balls, pins, big floaty things and pointy flaming things. He dropped a few here and there, and his final feat, which involved an elaborate mini-set that included three differently-shaped objects, stepladders and something like a cross between a skateboard and a seesaw, didn't have much payoff. But he pulled off a few nifty ones, and his presence at the DABP during the Bulls' 4-1 win over Toledo was thematically appropriate.

It was a damp, cool, leaden-breezed night at the ballpark. There had been rain all day, at times torrential, and it was a surprise that the weather cleared off enough to allow for the ballgame to be played---and even to start on time. By the seventh inning, it was quite chilly, especially for June.

But Durham starter James Houser kept plenty warm. Like Juggle Boy, he played with fire all night, as befits a 2009 Bull---these guys all seem to be most comfortable around danger. In his 6 2/3 innings of work, Houser allowed three doubles, a triple and three walks. He threw 102 pitches, only 59 for strikes. He went to seven three-ball counts. He recorded six groundouts and eight flyouts. He had only one 1-2-3 inning.

And somehow he held Toledo to one run, improving to 3-1 and lowering his ERA to 3.92.

Tonight was reminiscent in many ways of Houser's last start. In that outing, he handed out eight hits and four walks in five innings to the Buffalo Bisons but somehow escaped with just a single run scoring. He needed help from his defense that night, and he got it. He needed and got it again Friday, and he also needed help from the heavy air, blowing in sedulously from left-centerfield. The wind turned a homer into a double and another homer into an out. Justin Ruggiano and Rashad Eldridge each made an excellent play in the outfield to rob the Mud Hens of extra-base hits. Toledo's Ryan Roberson hit a pair of hot-smash grounders, one right at third and one at shortstop, and was thrown out each time. Bulls' first baseman Chris Richard made a diving catch of Jeff Frazier's scorcher in the sixth. And Toledo, which leads the league in strikeouts by a wide margin (four of the seven whiffingest hitters in the IL are Mud Hens), fanned against Houser six times---and did it without league-leader Mike Hessman, who missed his second straight game. The Bulls' Justin Ruggiano, who owns second place, took advantage of Hessman's absence and gained ground by striking out twice. (Dream on, man; you'll never catch Hessman.)

All of that is to say that Houser was lucky again. To be fair, he was also pretty good, probably about as good as he gets, in fact. Houser has three speeds---Slow, Slower, Slowest---and what did the job for him was Slower: his changeup, which Charlie Montoyo immediately complimented after the game. Just like fellow lefty Carlos Hernandez, who baffled Toledo with the changeup the night before, Houser used the pitch as a kind of middle-chute decoy, keeping the Mud Hens from sitting dead-red on either his harmless, mid-80s fastball or on his blooping upper-60s curveball (which he didn't throw as crisply tonight as he did in his last start). Although they made some deafeningly loud outs and hit some long balls just foul that would have been booming home runs with milliseconds of difference, the Mud Hens just couldn't quite time Houser. The roof seemed sure to cave on him at any moment, but when Houser left for a reliever with two outs in the seventh, the scoreboard somehow read 2-1 Bulls.

But is he just lucky, or actually witchy? I suppose I could have asked him, but the 24-year-old Houser seemed so nervous and diffident when I spoke with him after his last outing that I decided to give the poor fellow a break. Jon Weber confirmed for me that Houser has been working to gain confidence and reduce his nervousness since the season began. (His apparent insecurity makes it hard to believe that he's practicing mound sorcery---but on the other hand, perhaps that's part of the deception.) It's easy to see how, with a few more nights like this one, fooling hitters with his Blo Pops, marshmallows and Twizzlers, the skinny-as-a-juggler's-pin lefty might put on a few pounds of self-assurance. The litmus test will come in the second half of the season, when teams see him for the second time (his nine starts have come against nine different clubs). If they make adjustments and he doesn't, there could be trouble; he just doesn't have the artillery to subdue an enemy twice, and he'll have to vary his attack. But given how deftly he's avoided getting burned so far, I'm not sure I'd bet against him.

On the other side of the ball, the Bulls made like Mud Hens and pecked for runs. Charlie Montoyo told us that "it looked like we weren't gonna hit much" in the clammy weather against Toledo starter Brooks Brown, who, like Houser, benefited from the wind's effects: Jon Weber and Chris Richard both hit long flies that became outs. The Bulls had only one extra-base hit, which shouldn't have counted: With one out in the third, Henry Mateo lashed a line drive over first base that umpire Mark Lollo had to dodge. He snapped his head around to follow the ball's path, but he was a split-second late after his evasive leap. The ball was clearly several inches foul, but Lollo ruled it fair. He was probably just guessing; I doubt he even saw it land. Home-plate umpire Jason Klein waved his arms to signal the ball dead, and I thought he was overruling Lollo. But he was only declaring Mateo's hit a ground-rule double. Toledo first baseman Ryan Robertson was dumbfounded by Lollo's misprision, and manager Larry Parrish came out of the dugout for an explanation. But the call stood, and Ruggiano poked a single to left to plate Mateo. He then took care of committing the Bulls' nightly baserunning blunder, getting picked off of first base but ensuring a good time for all with a Looney Tunes-style 1-3-6-1 runaround.

The Bulls added a pair of runs in the bottom of the eighth. With two outs, Ruggiano and Richard singled. (The latter is finding his stroke again: Not only did the wind keep his long drive to left in the park for an out, he also blasted a rocket just foul down the right-field line in the sixth.) A passed ball moved them up a base, and then Ray Sadler, back in the lineup as DH (for which he and his still-recovering leg expressed gratitude after the game; he was in no shape to play the outfield), singled softly to center---if Sadler's hit was a pencil, it would have been about a No. 1.5. Both runners scored when Toledo centerfielder Brent Clevlen, who went 4-4, misplayed the ball.

Winston Abreu fanned two in the ninth for his team-leading ninth save. Right now, Abreu looks like a better closer than Dale Thayer. He attacks hitters more purposefully, and his slider is totally rude, especially to righthanders.

Tomorrow the Bulls hit the road (actually the air) for a nine-day trip to Pawtucket and Buffalo. Charlie Montoyo confirmed that just-promoted Jason Cromer will start Saturday in place of injured Mitch Talbot. The Pawsox, who were rained out Friday night at home, will move their scheduled starter to Saturday's game against the Bulls. Charlie Montoyo told us that that starter is a guy named John Smoltz. Yes, that John Smoltz, on a rehab assignment for Boston after major shoulder surgery last year. "I like my chances," Montoyo said, smiling insouciantly. With how well his team is playing with fire these days, why shouldn't he?

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