You can't spell 'bullpen' without B-U-L-L: Durham Bulls' relief staff throttles Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees | Sports
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Monday, August 17, 2009

You can't spell 'bullpen' without B-U-L-L: Durham Bulls' relief staff throttles Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees

Posted by on Mon, Aug 17, 2009 at 5:00 AM

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DBAP/ DURHAM---Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo occasionally bemoans how much he's forced to use his bullpen. It comes with the territory of managing a minor-league team, of course. Every parent club tends to be very, well, parental about its starting pitchers: limiting pitch counts, controlling innings pitched every year, giving extra rest to youngsters, etc. There is already chatter about how many more starts David Price will be permitted to make for Tampa before his workload is reduced; and in New York, Joba Chamberlain is getting extra days off between outings.

Starting pitchers are the child prodigies of baseball: rare and expensive, brilliant but sensitive, usually self-absorbed and easily disrupted, adept at something few mortals can even contemplate doing yet frequently unable to do it consistently themselves, the center of attention while they perform, sometimes arrogant or fussy, and often doomed to short careers. So they get babied.

In the case of Carlos Hernandez, a former hot prospect of the Houston Astros whom the Tampa Bay Rays are trying to rehabilitate at age 29, kid gloves have become essential. Hernandez has had a pair of major shoulder surgeries, and he was put back on a strict innings/pitch-count limit recently for fear of over-stressing his arm this year. Then the left-hander developed a mysterious wrist problem and has had to miss his last two starts, including last night's.

That's no big deal in the eyes of the front office---you want to protect your investment by whatever means necessary---but it is for Charlie Montoyo, who for the second time in five days had to fabricate a starter out of bullpen parts. A game like that is kind of like a bullfight with no matador: you can still kill the bull (or in this case the Yankee), but it will require much warier management of time and personnel, and the risk of someone getting gored is a lot higher.

Amazingly, the amalgamated-starter manufacture has worked swimmingly for the Bulls both times. On Tuesday, Calvin Medlock and Julio DePaula kept Gwinnett down for six innings before turning the game over to the Bulls' late-inning mercenaries; but Jason Childers and Winston Abreu gave the game away. Then, last night at the DBAP, Medlock teamed with Joe Bateman (pictured)---who started his first game since 2004---to blank Scranton for five innings. Joe Nelson then played the Jason Childers role, sponsoring an unearned run (as Childers did on Tuesday) and then going Childers one better by chipping in an earned run of his own. It should be said in Nelson's defense that the two hits he allowed were an infield trickler and an opposite-field bloop, and he was also cheated out of a pair of double plays: one on a blown call by the first base umpire, and the other on an error by Ray Olmedo. Nonetheless, Nelson departed with two outs in the seventh inning and the Bulls' lead down from 5-0 to 5-2, i.e. from comfortable to sticky.

And then Winston Abreu came in. Abreu has been stepping on rakes all over the yard lately, allowing more runs in his last three appearances than he had given up all season before that, plus three home runs to the last eight batters he'd faced---after giving up just one homer all of 2009 before that. So there was every reason to be nervous when he spelled Nelson.

Abreu proceeded to retire the next seven Yankees in order for his 11th save of the year. The Bulls won, 5-2.

Other than the blown-starter issue, which the bullpen jumped easily, last night's game was rather like Saturday's. This time, it was a different ex-major-league starter the Bulls had to figure out, Russ Ortiz. Ortiz is a 35-year-old right-hander who has 113 career big-league wins. Here are some pitchers 30+ years old who don't have that many: A. J. Burnett, Chris Carpenter, Cliff Lee and Carlos Zambrano.

Ortiz's best years are behind him now---his last good season was 2004 with Atlanta---and he missed all of 2008 recovering from Tommy John Surgery. But he managed to get himself back in the news this season with the Houston Astros, albeit not how he wanted to. Ortiz got into a very public quarrel with Houston manager Cecil Cooper over Cooper's lack of confidence in him, and the irreconcilable differences---which were really just background noise behind Ortiz's discordant performance (5.57 ERA, 48 walks in 85 innings)---led to his release in July.

The Yankees are like a bald eagle: noble-looking, an American icon, high-flying---but also a compulsive scavenger. One of the reasons it seems like every team has several ex-Yankees on it is that the Yankees have chewed on just about every player in the universe at one time or another. Yet somehow they have trouble stocking their Triple-A starting rotation anyway; not long ago they only had four starters and had to go out and acquire another used car, right-hander Jason Hirsh, from Colorado. Another hole needed to be filled recently, and so the Yankees swooped in on Ortiz.

And the Bulls approached Ortiz like they did Kei Igawa the night before: see what he's got, realize it isn't a lot, and drive him from the game before the fifth inning is over. And just as for Igawa, it was again the third inning where things started to break down for Ortiz. Henry Mateo led off with a bunt single, and Desmond Jennings lined out to center. Matt Joyce struck out, and Justin Ruggiano came up. I felt his home run coming, but before I could say anything, he belted Ortiz's first pitch over the Blue Monster. It was Ruggiano's first homer in over three weeks. (Apparently, his hyper-extended elbow, over which he was wearing a protective black sleeve, is back to normal extension.) Jon Weber just got under the next pitch and skied to center to end the inning, but it was 2-0, and clear that Ortiz was going to start having more trouble.

In the fourth inning, he needed 40 pitches to slog through seven hitters (he'd used only 36 for the first three innings combined). Ortiz managed to escape with just one run scoring, but he went to three three-ball counts, walked two batters, and saw the Bulls foul off countless two-strike pitches as the game slowed to a trickle. In the fifth, clearly tiring, Ortiz let the first four Bulls reach base---three on singles, one on an error on a fairly well-struck liner by Weber---and he was done, trailing 4-0, having burned through 86 pitches and put 12 men on base.

But the Bulls' scoring inefficiencies persisted. Scranton reliever Edwar Ramirez---another guy trying to work his way back to the bigs, where he flourished for a while last year with his devilish changeup---came on with the bases loaded and none out, and he pitched out of it with an infield pop-up and two strikeouts. Were the Bulls going to let yet another game get away from them? It just keeps happening lately, it seems.

They got a run back off of Ramirez in the next inning---or rather, Desmond Jennings got one back. He walked, moved to second on a wild pitch, stole third base, and then scored when catcher Chris Stewart threw the ball down the left-field line. From there, things stayed briefly interesting thanks to Nelson's seventh inning, until Winston Abreu came on with the fire hose and an unusually zippy fastball, which hit 95 mph a couple of times. Calvin Medlock, who deserved a win in his spot-start on Tuesday, got one this time.

A few notes:

* After Saturday's game, Akinori Iwamura told me that he felt "100 percent" healthy and that he planned to play every day while with the Bulls. So naturally he wasn't in the lineup last night. I flunked Journalism 101, though, and forgot to ask Charlie Montoyo whether Iwamura had declined to, say, 94.7 percent. I'll make sure to take the quiz again on Monday.

* Right after I spoke with Matt Joyce on Saturday night about, among other things, trying to strike out less and hit to the opposite field more, Joyce blasted a double to left-center field in the first inning on Sunday. Nice to see him do that, even if he followed it up with a pair of strikeouts and a flyout to right. You can take the boy out of little league, but you can't...

* Joe Bateman had a superb outing, his longest and one of his best of the year. Stretched out to 3 1/3 innings and 54 pitches---his limit was set at 60, Bateman told me---he threw 38 strikes, allowed two hits (both to Kevin Russo), walked only one man (that's usually his weakness), and fanned five. Bateman was quite aware of how seldom he starts games (but not how seldomly). Not only did he tell me it was his first start since 2004, he immediately added that it was just the 11th of his entire eight-year career. He was quite low-key about it though: "just a long relief appearance. Go as hard as you can, as long as you can." Nonetheless, he seemed somehow more relaxed on the mound, as if the unaccustomed context allowed him simply to go up there and just throw the ball rather than worry too much about protecting a late-inning lead or keep a game close.

Bateman's slider seemed tighter last night. I asked him when he started throwing the pitch, which is essential to his repertoire, and he told me that the current version---which has more horizontal break---is something he just picked up this season during spring training, literally the day before he was released by the Milwaukee Brewers. Previously, he had thrown what he called a "down-slider." He still uses that rendition of the pitch, but he told me that he has more confidence in the newer, more longitudinal slider, which is easier for him to throw for strikes. When facing a right-handed hitter, he throws it right at the batter and it finds its way all the way to the outside corner. He got the first five Yankee batters last night to swing and miss at it seven times. (More about the Yankees and their strikeouts below.)

And how long has Bateman been throwing sidearm? "Since I was in little league," he said. "That's the way I threw when I played Wiffle Ball," he added, noting that those plastic balls do all kinds of wild things when you throw them sidearm. (This was a satisfying echo of Matt Joyce's comments the previous night about being taught by his Dad to pull the ball too much when he was a youngster.) Bateman also explained that his long arms suit him for throwing sidearm; you get great whip and break on your pitches when you can extend your arm and hand so far from your body.

* Elliot Johnson (strained quadriceps) was still out of the lineup, as he predicted he would be.

* The Rays still have four catchers down in Durham, and Charlie Montoyo is looking forward to getting input from up top about how to use them. Fortunately, Gerry Hunsicker, the Rays' Senior VP for Baseball Operations, is in Durham right now and probably has ideas. They'll have entirely to do with which players the front office most wants to see log innings. I'm guessing John Jaso and Shawn Riggans will get most of the playing time. Meanwhile, soon enough the Tampa folks are probably going to figure out who needs to be moved off the roster.

* I'm looking forward to talking to Joe Dillon, whose approach to the game is smart and professional. He was 3-4 last night with three singles, and on all of them he simply took what the pitcher was giving him and turned it around. His fielding is sure-handed, and despite average speed he is an excellent, canny baserunner with sharp instincts. Charlie Montoyo praised Dillon's wherewithal on Saturday night in breaking for home on Chris Richard's groundout as soon as Dillon saw that the first baseman would have to lunge for it; that guaranteed that he would score on the play, regardless of whether the ball made it through the infield. And last night Dillon got great reads on the rhythm of Russ Ortiz's delivery, breaking for second base twice before Ortiz had even gone into his windup. But he recognized that Ortiz was so committed to the plate by the time he came set that he wouldn't interrupt himself and try to throw Dillon out, which he could probably have done. On the first of these plays, Ray Olmedo hit a foul ball; but on the next, two innings later, Dillon stole second base. That proved to be very important: he scored on Olmedo's subsequent single.

* A couple of notes from the Yankees' clubhouse: Cody Ransom, recently down from New York, was removed in the fifth inning of Saturday's game when he hurt his thumb sliding into second as he tried to break up a double play. The injury was bad enough that he was placed on the 7-day disabled list. Shelley Duncan was in the lineup after missing the first two games of the series with back tightness. He went 0-3 with a walk and two strikeouts.

* And speaking of strikeouts, I'm starting to wonder if Andy Sonnanstine's elevated whiff rate on Friday and Jeremy Hellickson's outrageous swing-and-miss ratio on Saturday had as much to do with the opponent as it did with the pitchers. The Yankees swing and miss an awful lot, especially at offspeed pitches. I was surprised to discover that they rank only fifth in the league in strikeouts---although they'd probably be fourth had they not lost so many games to rainouts. (The Bulls, by the way, are second in Ks.) Last night, Scranton's 3-4-5 hitters, Austin Jackson, Shelley Duncan and Juan Miranda, went hitless and struck out nine times. Jackson earned a golden sombrero and looked dreadful in all four of his K-bound ABs. He's the most highly regarded prospect the Yankees have in Scranton (Baseball America ranks him No. 1 in the Yankees' entire farm system), but right now the 22-year-old is very much a work-in-progress, still catching up to the ways and wiles of Triple-A pitchers.

* One other note, recorded well after the ballgame. My friend Jim and I went out for a late dinner, and as we were taking our last bites the Itamae hoisted a gargantuan boat of sushi onto the bar in front of us, and proceeded to weigh it down even more. A waiter then came and hauled it off to a nearby table, of three men: Yankees' pitcher Kei Igawa, a teammate, and an interpreter. They were lucky that probably the only restaurant in the Triangle where you can order sushi at 9:45 p.m. on a Sunday night happens to be less than a mile from the DBAP.

Having burned through four relievers on Sunday, Charlie Montoyo is probably praying that Jason Cromer can go at least six innings for him tonight. His opponent is the Yankees' Josh Towers, yet another ex-big-leaguer trying to pitch his way back up. It's the last game of the only series these two teams are scheduled to play at the DBAP this year. I would have said it was your last chance to taunt Yankees fans, but with any luck Durham and Scranton will see each other again in September for a rematch of the 2008 Governor's Cup Championship Series. Why tempt fate, though? See you tonight!

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