Durham Bulls edge Louisville Bats, move into first: with four (or five) hands tied behind their back | Sports
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Friday, July 17, 2009

Durham Bulls edge Louisville Bats, move into first: with four (or five) hands tied behind their back

Posted by on Fri, Jul 17, 2009 at 5:00 AM

That devious Rick Sweet. The Louisville Bats' manager guided the International League All-Star squad to a 6-5 win over the Pacific Coast League All-Stars on Wednesday night in Portland, Oregon. In order to do it, he needed a big helping of Durham's Dale Thayer, a late addition to the team when leading vote-getter Clay Buchholz declined to participate. Sweet summoned Thayer in the fifth inning. Two runs were already in, narrowing the score to 4-3 Internationals, and there were runners on first and third with just one out. On the very first pitch he threw, the unflappable Thayer got Alcides Escobar to pop out to right field, and the Colorado Sky Sox' Eric Young was doubled off of first base to end the inning. Rally over. The IL scored twice more in the next inning, the PCL All-Stars never tied the game, and Thayer's two-outs-with-one-pitch was the turning point.

Sweet rewarded Thayer for his heroic one-pitch effort by sending him back out for the sixth inning, too. Thayer worked around a one-out walk and held the PCL scoreless, throwing 1 2/3 shutout innings all told. This from a guy who wasn't even supposed to be on the team.

But it was vital to Sweet that Thayer pitch plenty in Portland, and it had nothing to do with winning that night's game, which was merely an exhibition. It had to do with winning the next one, which wasn't. And although his Bats lost to Durham Thursday night, 4-3, Sweet's ploy almost worked.

One night after helping win the All-Star game, Thayer and fellow All-Star Bull Reid Brignac (who had an RBI double in the game) were in Louisville playing against the manager they'd played under the previous night. Because of the long plane trip and Thayer's 17-pitch outing in Portland, Charlie Montoyo held both Bulls out of the lineup.

Two other Bulls reliables were missing as well. Justin Ruggiano sat out with a bruised hand (of course, hand, see title of post), and John Jaso was still up in Tampa, keeping Michel Hernandez's spot on the bench warm until Dioner Navarro returns to the lineup, which he's expected to do very soon. Add to that the mononucleosis still plaguing newly arrived Andy Sonnanstine, who probably would have started the game otherwise; and all in all, the Bulls were without five major vertebrae in their up-the-middle spine on Thursday night: their starting pitcher, catcher, shortstop and center fielder, and their closer---two of whom are, of course, All-Stars. The Bulls would have to win without them.

And they'd have to do it against Matt Maloney, who spent most of June with the big-league club in Cincinnati, and who could have made his own case for the AAA All-Star team (he might have made it had he not been in the majors when the final voting was done): Maloney came into the game with a 2.27 ERA and a WHIP under 1.00, with a sparkling 11 walks in nearly 90 innings. He's also left-handed, and the Bulls sported a dismal .670 team OPS against southpaws. With better run support, Maloney's record would have been much better than 6-5. He had thrown quality starts in eight of his previous nine outings.

But Maloney wasn't at his best last night, and the Bulls got to him for seven hits and three runs in 6 2/3 innings. Chris Richard hit his 15th home run of the season leading off the third and added an RBI single later in the game. He was the hitting star, but the players who filled in for the missing Bulls contributed as well. Jason Cromer started in Sonnanstine's place and held the Bats to one run over 5 2/3 innings---despite allowing seven hits and five (!) walks---he hasn't had a bad start for the Bulls yet this year. Ray Sadler patrolled center field for Ruggiano and threw out a runner at home plate; he also finally got his second hit of the year off of left-handed pitching. Granted, it was an infield single, but it still counts. He's now 2-55 against sinister-benders. Backup catcher Craig Albernaz had a pair of important hits, including an RBI single; and see below on fill-in shortstop Elliot Johnson.

But because Rick Sweet had used him up the night before and then put him on a long flight---we'll just say it was a red-eye, even though we don't know, because that makes it sound worse---Dale Thayer wasn't available, and that was perhaps part of Sweet's game plan for beating the Durham Bulls on the night after the All-Star game. The plan almost worked. The Bulls' setup man Joe Bateman pitched an easy eighth inning, and the Bulls added a run in the top of the ninth to pad their lead to 4-1. They needed the cushion. Bateman came back out for the ninth and allowed, in sequence, a double, an RBI single (that should also have been a double; Craig Tatum fell rounding first base), and another double. Suddenly it was 4-3 Bulls, runners were at second and third and no one was out.

And there was no one warming up in the Durham bullpen.

Former Bull Darnell McDonald then hit a grounder into the shortstop hole. Had the ball made it through to left field, Drew Sutton would have advanced to third. But Elliot Johnson, playing where Reid Brignac would have been had he not played in the All-Star game for Rick Sweet, corraled the ball and held McDonald to an infield single. Tatum scored from third, but Sutton couldn't advance; he had to hold at second base on the ball hit in front of him.

This was a critical play, because Chris Heisey (just recently promoted to Louisville from the Carolina Mudcats), followed with a slow grounder wide of third to Ray Olmedo. Sutton might have scored on the play had he been on third, but as it was, he only advanced to third from second. McDonald moved to second as Olmedo threw out Heisey at first. Bateman walked the lefty slugger Kevin Barker intentionally in order to set up a potential inning-ending double play or perhaps at least a force at home.

Boy was Joe Bateman in a heap of trouble. And he was only in it because Dale Thayer was resting; Bateman wouldn't have been in the game at all by now otherwise. You could picture Rick Sweet in the home dugout, grinning and rubbing his hands together like Montgomery Burns. Not only had Sweet kept Thayer out of the game, he had Bateman in a place Bateman isn't suited for: Bateman needed a double play, but he isn't anything like a sinkerball pitcher and his groundball/flyball ratio isn't especially great. He also walks a lot of batters, and a walk here with the bases loaded would tie the game.

What is great, though, is Bateman's batting average-against: a ruthless .164. He also came into the game with 34 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings. Bateman had fanned former Bull Wes Bankston and Daniel Dorn in the bottom of the eighth. A double play would have been nice, but it wasn't his style. He took what was for him a comfortable if perhaps more labor-intensive route: he calmly struck out Bankston again, and then K'd Chris Valaika to end the game with the bases loaded. It was Bateman's first save of the season. Sleep well, Dale.

Bitter Sweet! Ha! Tomorrow night the Bulls look to rub salt in Sweet's wound. Staff ace Wade Davis starts for Durham and he's due for a strong outing: he was hit around by Norfolk in his last start.

And Dale Thayer will be available, of course.

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