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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Durham Bulls lose to Gwinnett Braves: fundamentals

Posted by on Tue, Aug 11, 2009 at 5:00 AM

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="250" caption="Too bad the Bulls don't have this guy."]Too bad the Bulls dont have this guy.[/caption]A rough loss for the Bulls after the ride down from Durham. Personally, I think that if I were a ballplayer I would rather have left Monday morning than overnight it on the team bus. Gwinnett's only about six hours away. But as Charlie Montoyo is fond of saying: No excuses. The Bulls didn't play especially well in last night's 6-3 loss to Gwinnett, especially when it came to two fundamentals: taking advantage of opportunities, and limiting same for the other team. They ran themselves into a pair of fly-ball double plays (Jon Weber committed his second S.B.G. in as many games); they had 12 hits and 17 baserunners but scored only three times, stranding 10 and going 1-8 with runners in scoring position; they failed to capitalize on a pair of fielding errors by the Braves; and they committed two errors of their own---in the same inning---after which Joe Nelson came in from the bullpen and started escorting Braves around the bases.

But as always, the never-say-die Bulls fought back. Down 6-2, Elliot Johnson (who committed one of the errors and ran into one of the double plays, but also made a couple of fine plays at third base) led off the ninth inning with a solo home run. Four batters and one pitching change later, the Bulls had the bases loaded and one out, and the lead run was stepping to the plate. But Matt Joyce and Chris Richard struck out---both on check swings, both on sliders from Braves closer Luis Valdez, who had blown a save against the Bulls at the DBAP way back in the first week of the season.

Jeremy Hellickson pitched quite well for the Bulls, working out of one tight spot and leaving having allowed only a two-run homer by Omar Infante, who is on a major-league rehab assignment. Apparently, Gwinnett Manager Dave Brundage found out only a couple of hours before the game that Infante was joining the team. Needless to say, the new acquisition paid immediate dividends. Hellickson took the loss, but he should have departed after seven innings down just 2-1. Instead, the errors and the bullpen doomed him.

Some game notes follow the jump.

* Joe Nelson was terrific in his first outing as a Bull last Tuesday night (scroll down near the end of that post), throwing two scoreless innings against Indianapolis. He was almost giddy afterward, claiming to have fixed the problem that had gotten him demoted to Durham. But he struggled in his next appearance, losing the game for the Bulls in the ninth inning on the controversial Justin Maxwell home run. He also gave up a single and a walk in that inning. Nelson was poor again last night. He spelled Hellickson after the two seventh-inning errors put two men on base. He proceeded to give up a pair of walks (one with the bases loaded), hit a batter, and allow a two-run single before finally getting out of the inning. In the eighth, he gave up two more singles (one, to be fair, an infield hit) before Charlie Montoyo came with the hook.

It was especially unfortunate that Nelson labored last night, because Montoyo was trying to save his bullpen in anticipation of Tuesday's game. Carlos Hernandez, as we were warned, will miss his start with what we were told is a finger problem, and so the Bulls will use a clowns-in-a-Volkswagen approach on the mound. (Calvin Medlock is apparently scheduled to start.) Joe Bateman, who was forced to relieve Nelson last night, threw only eight pitches; but that's probably enough to limit him to one inning on Tuesday. Look for Jason Childers and Winston Abreu to do a fair amount of heavy lifting.

* Nelson's struggles reminded me of something fundamental about pitching: you've got to throw strikes. So many relievers, it seems, can't do that very basic thing consistently. You can practically arrange the Bulls' relievers' ERAs by their walk rates. Look at Andy Sonnanstine: he has nothing like overpowering stuff, but he's always around the plate and if you want to beat him, you have to earn it. Ditto Jason Childers. Throw strikes!

* John Jaso has thrown out just 11 of 85 base-stealers. Certainly some of those thefts came at the expense of pitchers and their slow deliveries, but that caught-stealing rate is really low and has to change in order for Jaso to land a major-league job. Also, Jaso's 2009 OPS is only .684. His career numbers are much better than that (over .800), so he's either still adjusting to Triple-A pitching or reaching his ceiling as a prospect. I'm still going with the former---he's got good plate discipline and a pretty smooth swing---but Jaso is about to turn 26. He needs to start showing improvement pretty soon, especially given that the Rays are stocking their farm with catching prospects these days.

* Last night's game took an astoundingly bloated 3:26 to play. One reason: the Braves and the Bulls are 1-2 in the league in walks drawn. They see a lot of pitches. If you want to look for a silver lining in last night's loss, it's that the Bulls saw 190 pitches. Their anxious early-swinging tendencies weren't in evidence. Oddly, despite all the patience at the plate, they walked only three times.

* This article offers a clue to why the Bulls strike out so much. But that doesn't mean it's okay, says Joe Maddon:

It's built into our culture that the people we get here are going to get strikeouts, but they are also going to get walks. But when there's a runner on third, less than two outs, that's where a strikeout is a particular concern. When there's a runner on second base, nobody out, that's the bigger concern. It's about situation. That's when the strikeout becomes more annoying.

* Speaking of lots of pitches, which I dimly remember doing above, last night after the Bulls' game I happened to catch the documentary The Lost Son of Havana on ESPN, which acquired the television rights to the independent film. It's a biography of pitching great Luis Tiant, and it also follows him on his first trip back to Cuba after 46 years away. Some of the prodigal-son scenes are a little heavy-handed, and the film is longer than it needs to be (its effect is diluted a bit by its length; Heather says the editing is slack), but serious baseball fans will be amazed by the film's account of Tiant's playing days. He had to completely reinvent his delivery and his repertoire after a potentially career-ending injury---he broke his scapula, which no other pitcher is known to have done. Well after emerging from that injury and re-establishing himself as the ace of the Boston Red Sox' pitching staff, Tiant won two games in the 1975 World Series. In the latter, he threw an incredible 173 pitches (or 163 by some accounts), getting Joe Morgan to pop out to end the game. They just don't make 'em like the used to. The Lost Son of Havana will probably air again on ESPN; I hate to promote that network, but I do want to endorse the few good deeds they do, so check it out if you can. Also check out Roger Angell's famed description of Tiant's mid-career pitching motion, which I can't resist reprinting below:

1) Call the Osteopath: In midpitch the man suffers an agonizing seizure in the central cervical region, which he attempts to fight off with a sharp backward twist of the head.

2) Out of the Woodshed: Just before releasing the ball he steps over a raised sill and simultaneously ducks his head to avoid conking it on the low doorframe.

3) The Runaway Taxi: Before the pivot, he sees a vehicle bearing down on him at top speed, and pulls back his entire upper body just in time to avoid a nasty accident.

4) Falling Off the Fence: An attack of vertigo nearly causes him to topple over backward on the mound. Strongly suggests a careless dude on the top rung of the corral.

5) The Slipper-Kick: In the midpitch, he surprisingly decides to get rid of his left shoe.

6) The Low-Flying Plane (a subtle development and amalgam of 1, 3, and 4 above): While he is pivoting, an F-I05 buzzes the ball park, passing over the infield from the third-base to the first-base side at a height of eight feet. He follows it all the way with his eyes.

Oh, by the way: the Bulls and Braves are tied for first in the International League South Division.

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