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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Durham Bulls lose again to Indianapolis Indians: thunder, no lightning

Posted by on Tue, Aug 4, 2009 at 5:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM---In the sixth inning of the Bulls' 6-2 loss to Indianapolis, the sky grew ominous, and thunder rumbled in the distance. In the press box, Dave Levine checked the radar, which showed an orange-red storm cell moving toward the DBAP.

The Bulls trailed, 3-2. They'd taken a 2-0 lead with single runs in the first and second innings, and early on they looked poised to rebound from Sunday's disheartening loss to the Indians. But Indianapolis touched Durham starter Andy Sonnanstine for single runs in the third, fourth and fifth---two scored on solo homers, and the other on a lot of bad luck. You got the feeling, as the sky darkened not only with the onset of night but the gathering of clouds, that the Bulls might be on the verge of erupting after 23 deceptively punchless innings so far. Sure, the Bulls had scored six times in splitting the first two games of the series, which isn't awful, but they'd looked out-of-sorts at the plate and had choked repeatedly when they needed a big hit. In the series so far, they're 5-29 with runners in scoring position.

And so the last of sixth seemed rather emblematic. Jon Weber and Shawn Riggans struck out---two of 10 whiffs on the night for Durham---but then Rhyne Hughes, the ubermensch of the moment for Durham, the team's lone star in an overcast stretch, ripped his second double of the night. This was a boomer hit to nearly the same place as the fateful one he belted on Sunday, the one that plated one run less than it should have.

Here are Rhyne Hughes's numbers during his 11-game hitting streak, which is the longest of the season by a Bull: 20-37 (that is a .541 batting average), 10 doubles and a homer (.892 slugging). You could complain that he has only drawn three walks during the streak, but do you really expect a guy to take pitches when he's hitting like this?

But Hughes's double amounted to distant thunder. Henry Mateo followed Hughes's double by grounding out to first base and ending the inning. The storm passed without hitting the DBAP; the night grew heavy and still; the small crowd (just over 4,000) got very quiet and stayed that way for most of the rest of the game; and so did the Bulls' lineup. They failed to score in the last seven innings, going 0-10 with men in scoring position in that stretch and stranding nine baserunners all told. Afterward, Charlie Montoyo used the word "horrible" to describe the Bulls' current hitting with men in scoring position. Montoyo doesn't resort to language that strong very often.

Heather worried after the game that Montoyo shouldn't have called the current roster "the best team of the year," which he consented to do when that headline-ready phrase was suggested to him two games ago. I agree not only with Montoyo that the Bulls have a sprained RISP right now, but also with Heather that comments like "best team of the year" are an almost sure way to jinx a ballclub. Still, I don't think Bulls fans should worry too much about their team just yet.

As Montoyo noted after the game, "that lineup should score more than what we're doing." It should, and it will, barring a contagious slump of epidemic proportions. It's not as if the Bulls aren't trying. Montoyo told us that eight players showed up early for optional batting practice yesterday afternoon. The Bulls' 3-6 hitters then went 1-16 with five strikeouts. That isn't going to happen often. Shawn Riggans hasn't played against competition this strong in four months. Matt Joyce is in one of those little funks he falls into periodically, with just two singles in his last 19 at-bats. Justin Ruggiano had gone 3-4 with two doubles the night before last and was due for a regression; he went 0-4 on Monday with two strikeouts. Chris Richard was given a night off, probably to help snap him out of his 4-27 slump.

The Bulls' 7-9 hitters had six of the team's eight hits. Newbie Desmond Jennings, batting leadoff, came up three times with a man on second base and made three outs. He appeared miffed at a couple of strike calls, which looked to me more like a deeper frustration that Triple-A pitchers can work the plate and throw offspeed pitches for strikes with a savvy that most Double-A pitchers can't match. Jennings just got called up from Montgomery three days ago; give him time to adjust. For what it's worth, he also drew a pair of walks and stole a base.

It's only two games. If the slump extends to four or five, then we can start worrying. Right now, we're seeing agglutinations of certain laws of averages, some apparently symptomatic but in fact random clusters of unchained events: storm clouds that gather but don't quite open up. The air remains heavy, oppressive, swollen, caged. The Bulls lose two in a row. It looks bad. But before that, don't forget, they won eight of ten. This is a team that can rain on you heavily, and for a while.

***

Andy Sonnanstine's night was weird. He breezed through the first inning on eight pitches (which included two strikeouts!), and after 3 2/3 he'd allowed only a pair of singles. But with two out in the fourth, Indianapolis' Tagg Bozied hung in for a 13-pitch at-bat against Sonnanstine, fouling off pitch after pitch. On the last of them, he popped an 85-foot champagne cork over the mound. Sonnanstine started to walk toward the Bulls' dugout, so sure was he that it would be caught. But the ball found a Bermuda Triangle and fell between second baseman Henry Mateo, shortstop Reid Brignac, and the place where Sonnanstine would have been had he gone after it---which he probably should have, at least for show. Anyway, Bozied had a cheap infield hit.

Neil Walker followed with a sharp single to right field, and Robinzon [sic] Diaz then blooped another cheap single, this one to shallow left field. The flare scored Bozied, and Sonnanstine wasn't the same after that. Four of the last 10 hitters he faced had hits off of him, and two were home runs. One was by Brian Bixler, his second in as many nights and his third of the year against the Bulls. He has only eight all season. The other homer was hit---blasted, in fact, over the Bull that towers above the Blue Monster---by Chris Barnwell. Barnwell entered the game with a batting average that had not surpassed .200 once all season long, and that's despite a current seven-game hitting streak (and he's hit safely in 12 of his last 13). He had one home run in 2009 prior to Monday night.

In other words, to repeat something I've written here before (and to paraphrase Charlie Montoyo), baseball is a strange game. The Indians look kind of mealy on paper---they're composed mainly of the Pirates' failed prospects and fringe major-leaguers who haven't been able to sustain success with other clubs and have been dumped on Pittsburgh in trades---but they've hit the ball like capable professionals the last two nights against a couple of very good starting pitchers in Sonnanstine and Wade Davis. Their pitching has been good, too, especially closer Chris Bootcheck. That Durham's bullpen added to the Bulls' woes last night can't exactly be held against them: they'd tossed 11 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in the previous three games.

The best thing to do, perhaps, is to say it again: Baseball is strange. Expect a movement of the clouds before long. The Bulls lead the league in home runs but haven't hit one in 19 innings. They'll hit a bunch soon, I promise. Dale Thayer will reel off a few scoreless appearances in a row. The Bulls will drive in a bunch of runners in scoring position. And Jon Weber will keep hitting doubles, just like he did again last night.  Eventually, thunder brings lightning. And if you think the Bulls need help from a place even higher than the clouds, take heart: three priests and a bishop toured the press box last night. That sounds like the setup for a bad joke, but with the Bulls now tied again for the division lead, it felt more like a four-handed blessing.

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