Durham Bulls win 6th straight: Home is anywhere I hit my home run (or, The Hat Rack is the Bat Rack) | Sports
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Friday, July 3, 2009

Durham Bulls win 6th straight: Home is anywhere I hit my home run (or, The Hat Rack is the Bat Rack)

Posted by on Fri, Jul 3, 2009 at 5:30 AM

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="216" caption="Earl Weaver: "I'll tell you what you can do with your small ball!""]Earl Weaver: Ill tell you what you can do with your small ball![/caption]DBAP/ DURHAM---Adepts of that scrappy, hustley, one-base-at-a-time stratagem called Small Ball are able to make a case for it because it looks sportier: Guys stealing bases, laying down sacrifice bunts, putting on the hit-and-run, dirtying their uniforms, and so on. There are certainly occasional moments when Small Ball is a good idea, but the vast majority of the time it isn't. You can read endless articles about the war between the Small Ballers and the Big Ballers (I'd better stop before this starts to sound vaguely lascivious), so I won't belabor the schism here; but the empirical evidence---i.e. history---supports the latter, whose philosophy was best summed up by the legendary Baltimore manager Earl Weaver way back in the days that seem comparatively Small Ballish compared to ours: "Pitching, defense and the three-run homer." But what about bunting? "I have nothing against the bunt---in its place. But most of the time that place is in the bottom of a long-forgotten closet."

Cue the Durham Bulls. They've now hit 20 round-trippers in their last nine games, including three in last night's 8-6 win over Charlotte. The Bulls have won seven of those nine games, and six straight; it's the first half-dozen-in-a-row for them since the first six games of the season. They remain unbeaten in the Age of Dave Myers, the hitting coach sitting in for Charlie Montoyo while Montoyo's son recovers from surgery. If you want to know why the Bulls are winning right now, those homers provide a large portion of the answer; they are the grains, along with doubles, in the food pyramid of offensive nutrition. Or the meat of the Atkins Diet. Either way.

Coupled with Gwinnett's win over Norfolk, the win extended Durham's division lead to two games. That's as far ahead as the Bulls have been since something like late April (please don't make me try to find the actual date; I'm really begging you). For Gwinnett, which now stands just 2 1/2 games back, it was the second improbable late-inning comeback win in a row. Even more improbable, though, was that their starter was the 37-year-old John Halama, who seemed to be just coming into his prime with the Seattle Mariners during the second Clinton administration.

Anyway, guess what was the biggest play of last night's Bulls game? If you said a three-run homer, you win a Jon Weber Grill! And last night the Bulls followed most of the rest of the Earl Weaver Formula as well:they got perfect defense, and enough good pitching from Andy Sonnanstine, making his first start for Durham since his relegation to the minors from Tampa. Sonnanstine last pitched at the DBAP in 2007, when he was on his way up rather than down.

Sonnanstine wasn't great, allowing seven hits, including three doubles, over six innings. But that wasn't unusual: Sonnanstine is a high-hits pitcher. Even in his successful 2008 season in Tampa, he gave up 212 hits in 193 1/3 innings. Sonnanstine's game is about his control and his slider; he walks very few hitters (just 37 last year), and he relies on keeping hitters off-balance enough to prevent them from stringing hits together for big inning---his slider is his primary prop in his off-balancing act. It's perhaps slightly worrisome that the Knights hit Sonnanstine much better the second time through the lineup, but on the other hand he finished strong, retiring five of the last six men he faced (the one blemish was an infield hit) on groundouts and strikeouts. From the perspective of Bulls fans, he's sure to be an improvement on at least 2/5 of the rotation, although there's no word yet on who will be the odd man out with Sonnanstine's arrival.

After the game, Sonnanstine specifically mentioned wanting to work on his slider, and when I asked him what it was exactly he thought needed improvement, he revealed that his slider is actually two slightly different pitches: one to lefties, one to righties. The difference is release point: when throwing it to lefthanders, Sonnanstine tries to get on top of the slider a little more to produce more "bite" and dive; against righthanders, he drops his arm a little so that the pitch has more horizontal break. Sonnanstine's delivery has a curious pause in it right at the back edge, as though he's waiting for his momentum to reverse direction and head plateward. It seems like he could use that pause to set his angle exactly the way he wants it.

This is why I love talking to pitchers, especially starters: they're consummate tinkerers and geeks, always messing around with their grip, arm slot, and so on, looking for that small but essential extra dose of advantage. Where hitting is essentially reactive---try to guess what pitch is coming and hit it---pitching is active, but in complex, often invisible ways. The action requires tremendous thought and care, and its mechanics are intricate and easily fouled. It's very likely that Sonnanstine's struggles in Tampa this season have resulted from apparently nugatory deviations from what he had been doing in 2008---plus luck, of course. Always luck.

The Bulls' hitters (ed: that space very important!) avoided needing too much luck by hitting balls over everyone's heads regularly last night off of Jeff Marquez, whom they pounded for the second time this year. (Marquez has been pounded often; with the loss, he's now 1-6 with a 9.09 ERA.) In the first of the two games, on April 28, he walked the first hitter he faced, allowed a single to Reid Brignac and then walked Matt Joyce to load the bases with no one out. The fourth batter, Justin Ruggiano, hit a grand slam to make it quickly 4-0.

I mention this because in looking up Marquez's first start against Durham this season, I discovered that this precise sequence has played out twice for the Bulls in 2009: a walk to the first batter of the game (Henry Mateo the second time; Weber the first), a single by Brignac and a walk to Joyce, all cleared by a Ruggiano grand slam. The second time it happened, at home against Pawtucket on June 19, I remarked on the rarity of a grand slam by the fourth batter of the game---completely forgetting not only that it had already happened once this season, but by the same player to boot. How did I miss that?

And that reminds me that we also saw Chris Richard hit two grand slams in one game for the Bulls this year, which hadn't been done in the International League since the 1950s. Baseball is an amazing game.

No grand slam last night, but the Bulls did get out to a quick 4-0 lead, and it was Ruggiano who again got them started in the first inning, lining a two-run single to right to score Mateo and Joyce. Two innings later, Joyce blasted a two-run homer off of Marquez. Joyce has homered in each of the last four games. Dave Myers told us after the game that the physical adjustments Joyce has made at the plate have been "very slight, if any." It's just been a matter of a good hitter falling into a rut and then riding it out. This simply happens sometimes. Once Joyce got a couple of hits, Myers added, his confidence rose. Now he's a terror.

Weber's three-run dinger to center field put the game more or less out of reach in the fourth inning (I say "more or less" deliberately, because it went from much-more to much-less once the Durham bullpen got involved), and Chris Richard yanked a solo shot down the right-field line in the fifth. Richard's home-run power is so irrepressible that he can still take pitchers deep despite being barely able to run (he started at designated hitter last night): when he grounded into a third-inning double-play---which was turned as slowly as a rusty turnstile---it seemed like we waited several seconds for him to cross first base after the relay throw arrived. He's obviously still not 100%. A couple of fan comments I read somewhere urging Charlie Montoyo to add Richard to his outfield rotation are admirable for their creativity (and for their memory: Richard used to be an outfielder), but they're simply untenable.

Perhaps thoughtfully ensuring that Dale Thayer could get another save opportunity, and that the game wouldn't become utterly uninteresting for the very large crowd on hand, Jorge Julio relieved Sonnanstine in the seventh inning and allowed the Knights to light him up for three runs on a double, a walk to the No. 9 hitter, and a home run by Miguel Negron, just Negron's fourth of the season. Jorge? Sr. Julio? Suffice it to say that if pitching is tinkering, Julio must have clubbed his pitching thumb with a hammer a lot when he was younger and stopped going to Shop. His ERA is now a staggering 9.31, and he has allowed runs to score in six of his nine appearances. I suppose, on the bright side, that an 8-2 game is the perfect one in which to use him.

Thayer got his save, but not before missing with a couple of pitches and watching Cole Armstrong hit one of them for a solo homer. Thayer's been struggling a little, and we're starting to see his weakness a bit more: pitches up in the strike zone. The Bulls' relief corps has generally been erratic lately. They're overused, of course.

And they've also been destabilized again. More Bulls on the Move: recent Tampa call-up Winston Abreu, designated for assignment last week, was traded to Cleveland for John Meloan, who was assigned to Durham. On the face of it, this move makes no sense: Abreu was the Bulls' best reliever this season, and so it figured he'd make the majors soon enough. What didn't compute was that he made only two appearances in nearly three weeks with the Rays before they sent him packing. Peering more closely, it became apparent that Abreu was not only out of options but also had an opt-out clause in his contract in case he was removed from the 40-man roster. So rather than even bother trying to sneak him through waivers, Tampa worked out a trade. I'm still wondering, though, why Abreu got virtually no chance to prove himself in the big leagues before the Rays abruptly swapped him. I guess they're just looking ahead to the future. For the time being, I suspect Abreu will see significant action with the Indians.

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="John Meloan joins the Bulls"]John Meloan joins the Bulls[/caption]John Meloan, who turns 25 next weekend, was once considered a rather hot prospect. Pitching for Southern League Jacksonville in the Los Angeles Dodgers' organization in 2007, he won the "Double-A Relief Pitcher of the Year Award" (I know what you're thinking: there's such a thing as the "Double-A Relief Pitcher of the Year Award"?). But his performance slipped, he fared poorly after the Dodgers inexplicably tried him as a starter, and he was eventually traded to Cleveland in the Casey Blake deal.

This season Meloan struggled a bit pitching for the Indians' Triple-A affiliate in Columbus---although he did throw a scoreless inning in each of two games against the Bulls just a few days ago. Meloan throws a 12-6 curve and has the sort of durable arm that could still, at his relatively young age, make him a viable big-league reliever if he puts all of the pieces together. In any case, his age (and his lack of opt-out clauses) makes him perhaps more attractive than Abreu, who is 32.

Meanwhile, with Sonnanstine joining the team, someone had to leave it. That someone was Dewon Day, who was released yesterday. Dave Myers told us that the move had mainly to do with giving Day a chance to find another job in AAA; the only practicable options Tampa had involved either a demotion or a stint on the organizational disabled list (as opposed to the Bulls' team DL, where Day had already gone once with forearm stiffness). There seemed little point in sending down a 28-year-old reliever whose game isn't going to develop much further, or in shelving him again with a nominal injury. Day hasn't been very durable, and a team like the Bulls, which uses its bullpen heavily, needs live arms. Meloan appears to be just that, even if that arm has pitched to a 5.52 ERA so far this year. That's still almost four runs lower than Jorge Julio's.

It was a kick to see Jon Weber with hair. He's growing it out---"just something different," the normally cue-balled outfielder told me in the locker room, holding in front of him his young son Dylan, who himself has a spiky blond don't-mess-with-me-or-my-hair-gel look going. Weber's wife is a teacher in California, and when the schoolyear ends the family joins the paterfamilias wherever he happens to be playing. I asked Weber about the Bulls' currently red-hot hitting and the winning streak, wondering how the team had turned it around since the gruesome, anemic 1-7 homestand in mid-June. Weber credited Charlie Montoyo with keeping the ship afloat even as it took on water. (By contrast, Weber recalled one of his old managers in A-ball responding to a 14-game losing streak by making the team practice right after the bus dropped them off at the ballpark after a road trip. It was 3:00 a.m.) The Bulls are charging right now, and it's inevitable that at some point a retreat will follow and the team will have to recover again. Look for a dip at some point in July---the Bulls play 18 of their remaining 27 games this month on the road---and then we'll see what the team does in August, when they play at the DBAP 18 times.

Speaking of 3:00 a.m...

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