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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Durham Bulls beat Buffalo Bisons again: Quick, Quick, Slow

Posted by on Thu, Jun 10, 2010 at 6:00 AM

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DBAP/DURHAM—I watched part of last night's 6-4 Bulls victory over the Buffalo Bisons with a choreographer friend of mine. After the game, which took 3:16 to play, she told me that each minute of elapsed time in one of her dance pieces takes about three hours to choreograph.

Last night's ballgame was long, sluggish, laborious. The normally efficient and effective Bulls' starter Jeremy Hellickson struggled, needing 101 pitches to wind through just 4 2/3 innings. His opposite number, Bisons starter Tobi Stoner, allowed four runs in the first inning, and needed 48 pitches to emerge from the first two frames. The two teams combined to tally 25 hits and eight walks, but went a collective 4-23 with runners in scoring position and stranded 21.

I couldn't help thinking, later on, that the game was in some ways the antithesis of the sort of compression that distills three hours of choreography into one minute of dancing. Even though plenty happened on the field—including a couple of oddities that we may never see again—it somehow seemed as if there was about one minute of interesting baseball in more than three hours of time under the lights.

That's not to say that the game was boring, exactly—frankly, I've never found a single inning of baseball actually boring—but that it was wasteful, artless and plodding. There were a lot of bloop singles and dinky ground-ball hits; a surfeit of three-ball counts; long and lurching at-bats that ended anti-climactically; a poorly executed sacrifice that squandered a run; and an ill-timed passed ball. Even the game's most memorable play, an inside-the-park home run, managed to seem mostly bewildering and finally unsatisfying. As if to provide an appropriate meteorological setting, it was an oppressively heavy, humid night at the ballpark.

Yet the game started off with a flurry of activity, as though its choreography had put the climax first and then allowed the dance to lose momentum, inning by inning, till the end. Bulls' second baseman J. J. Furmaniak, who led off the bottom of the first inning with an exciting, gutsy triple (little did we know things would slow down from there), may have nailed it afterward. On Tuesday the Bulls got up before 4:00 AM and flew home from Syracuse, New York before whipping Buffalo at the DBAP, 7-0. "Usually the second day after a real tough travel day is when you get draggy," Furmaniak observed, correctly. (One Bulls fan I know expertly predicted that the travel fatigue would catch up with the Bulls a day after the pre-dawn wake-up and flight.)

It's to the Bulls credit that they managed to overcome the drag just enough on a night when their ace was more like a knave. The Durham bullpen was once again very good, even if they took down this Bison more by slowing it down than by running it off a cliff. Winston Abreu finally did get his work in, after 10:00 PM, but he put the tying runs on base before earning his fifth save in a game that initially seemed like it couldn't possibly provide a save opportunity. From quick beginnings, though, it slowed all the way down to the pace and place that made Abreu crawl out of it.

The quick and the slow, the long and the short of it, after the jump.

Jeremy Hellickson wasn't on his game early last night. Justin Turner banged Hellickson's third pitch off the Blue Monster for a ringing DBAP single. Although Hellilckson broke back by striking out the next two hitters to end the inning, he allowed a leadoff double, also well-hit, to Mike Cervenak in the second inning. One out later, Andy Green spanked an outside fastball into the right field corner for another double to score Cervenak. Hellickson then walked J. R. House, and Emmanuel Garcia followed with a booming flyout to very, very deep left-center field that Matt Joyce hauled in with a fine, over-the-shoulder, running catch. Hellickson struck out Russ Adams to end the inning, and then fanned the side swinging in the third.

It was already 4-1 Durham, and it seemed like we were settling into a representative 2010 Bulls game: score a few early, let Hellickson get into his usual groove, get a couple of relievers some work later on when the outcome is decided. I can't find the data anywhere, but I bet the Bulls score a disproportionate number of first-inning runs. Yesterday's official game notes courtesy of the Bulls noted that the team had outscored opponents by 39 runs in innings one and two, cumulatively.

Make it 42. "Tobi Stoner" is an anagram for "Bison Torte," and the Bulls dug into their cake right away, determined to devour dessert first. In the bottom of the first inning, J. J. Furmaniak got ahead 3-1 before lacing a ball into the right-centerfield gap (he has good power the opposite way). Furmaniak said later that he had played against Bison right fielder Valentino Pascucci, who is normally a first baseman, and knew him to be a little slower than most outfielders (he's about as big as the Bulls' bunyonesque Ryan Shealy) and with an infielder's throwing arm. That sad old sourpuss called conventional wisdom recommends never, ever making the first out of an inning at third base, but conventional wisdom never saw Valentino Pascucci play right field. Furmaniak steamed for third and beat Pascucci's not-great throw by a step.

The next hitter, Matt Joyce, grounded out to second to score Furmaniak, and if the inning had produced nothing further for Durham, you'd have to have praised Furmaniak for making a well-informed on-the-fly choice to take a risk: It was a quick decision based on slow-gathered information. As it happened, the Bulls added three more runs, capped by a two-out, two-run single by Angel Chavez. They added a run in the third inning on Jose Lobaton's double off Stoner.

But Hellickson followed his three-strikeout inning with another stumble not long afterward. After a relatively painless fourth (he worked around a two-out walk), he made a bad pitch to Russ Adams with one out in the fifth; Adams tagged it for a solo homer. After the game, Hellickson said that "I just kind of fell apart from there." Three more singles, all solid line drives, led to another run, and Hellickson was finished. Mike Ekstrom relieved and struck out just-called-up Marshall Hubbard to shut the door.

After the game, Charlie Montoyo's assessment matched mine: Hellickson lacked fastball command, and so he was forced to throw a lot of breaking balls. His curveball seemed particularly sharp, and some of the peripherals on the margins of Hellickson's core of difficulties looked quite good: eight strikeouts and 13 swings-and-misses in 101 pitches, and it seemed to me that most of those whiffs were induced by offspeed pitches. In other words, there was a superb Hellickson performance last night, but it was obscured by all the pollution with which he surrounded it. Nothing came easy for him, and breaking balls are especially taxing to throw, not so much physically (the curve actually reduces elbow strain, some pitchers say) as mentally: you have to think, plot, craft what you're doing when you can't just rear back and zing the heater in there for on-the-black strikes. As Hellickson noted, the Bisons fouled off a lot of his offspeed pitches, prolonging at-bats and wearing the Iowan's repertoire thin. His night had a lot of dross, a lot of noise: extraneous pitches, unproductive toil; he left one out shy of qualifying for what would have been his league-leading ninth win.

Surprisingly, at first Hellickson disagreed with Montoyo, saying he thought he had good fastball command. Not long after that, though, he changed his mind. Mainly he felt he "threw some pitches I shouldn't have thrown." That claim got me thinking back to an interview I had conducted earlier in the day with erstwhile Bulls reliever Jason Childers, who noted that pitch selection is never really the problem, pitch execution is. It wasn't so much that Hellickson shouldn't have thrown Adams the pitch he chose to throw him; it was that he left it up and out over the plate. You can throw anything as long as you put it in the proper place.

Hellickson is still just 23 years old. His answers to our questions, which equivocated a little, reminded me that he himself is still learning how to evaluate his work. He is an intelligent and alert worker on the mound—and it was good to see him work with his breaking pitches on a night when the fastball lacked crispness—but it will take him a little more time to step outside of himself and his pitching in order to gain sufficient clarity on what he's doing, especially on nights when what he's doing has flaws in it. (He was asked at one point about the 28-pitch second inning that undermined him early, and responded that he couldn't remember what had happened in that inning; it was already receding from his awareness.) Hellickson is like a choreographer who is also the solo performer in his dance: he can't quite see what he's doing all the time; so concerned is he with simply executing the moves that he isn't entirely cognizant of their quality, and he can't always record their sequence in his mind for later critique. (Fortunately, there's always game film to remind him.) It's quite an education for an observer (i.e. a sportswriter) to watch him build these complex skills. I don't doubt that he'll learn from last night. If nothing else, he won't throw that pitch to Russ Adams again—even if he doesn't face Adams for five more years.

Some things you don't see every day:

* An inside the park home run. Mike Jacobs's opposite-field fly in the top of the seventh inning hit that nebulous part of the top of the Blue Monster that is in play but doesn't appear to be. The ball bounced down onto the field. A lot of people started acting like it was a homer, although some Bulls were pointing up there in that importunate way that fuzzy DBAP fly balls require. It wasn't a homer, though; still, no one seemed to a) notice that none of the umpires had signaled home run (in fact, one of them made the "safe" sign, which means the ball is in play or b) want to bother picking up the ball and throw it into the infield. Meanwhile Jacobs circled the bases, rapidly but without the heart-pounding desperation that usually heaps up around an attempted inside-the-parker; if memory serves, he crossed the plate right around the time that Matt Joyce picked up the ball and hurled it up onto the concourse in front of the Tobacco Road Cafe—which at least made the homer official. It had to be the least exciting inside the park home run ever hit.

The kicker was that Jacobs struck out in all of his other four at-bats. Weird.

* Bisons reliever Bobby Parnell, who spent all of last year on the New York Mets' big-league roster, made the radar gun go 100 twice. Kids, those weren't kilometers. There are not a lot of pitchers who can do that, and I had not seen one at the DBAP since I began covering the team last season. The thing is, Parnell's four-seamer was pretty much just flat and hard—Montoyo noted as much later on, and said that Parnell was "a good challenge"—almost totally devoid of movement, (here's a frustrated scouting report), and Furmaniak and Joyce greeted him with singles in the sixth inning. He fanned Justin Ruggiano with one of his 100-mph blazers and got Dan Johnson to ground into a fielder's choice, but he either crossed up his catcher or just badly missed his spot with a fastball to Ryan Shealy. It skipped away from J. R. House and and Furmaniak scored on what was scored a passed ball.

In the next inning, Chris Richard—the Bulls' savviest hitter, to my eyes—fell behind Parnell 0-2, fouling off a pair of high-90s heaters (he looked frustrated at not being able to turn them around for hits), but then fouled off another and finally worked a walk. After Angel Chavez hit into a fielder's choice, Jose Lobaton dragged Parnell through a nine-pitch at-bat before flying out. The Bulls didn't score in the seventh, but they made Parnell throw 45 pitches in two innings, probably wiping himself out for the rest of the series. Speed kills, and it usually does in the driver.

* And anyway, to quote Ezra Pound, slowness is beauty. (Actually, Pound stole that line, but much of the Cantos are a pastiche of found writing. What, this isn't a book review? Oh.) To see that in action, all you had to do was compare Parnell to the Bulls' lefty sidearmer R. J. Swindle, whose fastball topped out at 80 mph—and he got J. R. House to strike out swinging at it. Swindle fanned the side in the eighth inning, his last pitch a 55-mph... curveball, I guess? Russ Adams swung over it as it slunk underneath his bat. The Bisons looked helpless against Swindle.

I can pretty much guarantee that fans at last night's game will never see another one that includes both a 100-mph pitch and a 55-mph pitch. Quick and slow. Tell your grandkids.

Couple of quick notes:

* Got to talk with J. J. Furmaniak for the first time since he joined the team, although we first watched the last few minutes of regulation of the Blackhawks-Flyers Stanley Cup game. (Furmaniak grew up and lives just outside of Chicago. He must have been pleased with the result.) Always curious about injuries, mainly because we're hardly ever told the truth about them, I asked Furmaniak what had sidelined him until just recently. Reports were that he had hurt his heel or Achilles tendon, but in fact, Furmaniak told me, he tore his plantar fascia. The plantar fascia is, to quote Wikipedia (never a good idea, I know), the "thick connective tissue which [sic] supports the arch of the foot." He seems to have done the damage landing on second base. Bad as it sounds, tearing the plantar fascia is actually preferable to merely inflaming it. In the latter case, you have chronic pain more or less indefinitely (Jason Giambi suffered from it); when you tear it, you have surgery and it basically heals back up—although, Furmaniak said, he will as a consequence someday have no arch in that foot. He is apparently fine now, as his first-inning triple attests.

* In case worry arises around the absence of regulars Desmond Jennings and Elliot Johnson from last night's lineup, they were in fact just getting scheduled days off; it just happened to be the same day. On Tuesday, Montoyo told us that Jennings has some sort of uncertain and ongoing shoulder bother that doesn't appear to be anything major or treatable: it just occasionally feels tweaky when he swings, but he is essentially fine and just has to learn to live with it. For the moment, Joe Dillon, who remains on the disabled list with a popped hamstring, is the only guy out of action. The Bulls are remarkably healthy, actually, with Rashad Eldridge's brief emergency callup in May from Montgomery the only Double-A dip of the season so far. (But don't worry, that'll surely change soon!) No, I'm not counting Omar Luna's bisquick appearance, since he never played in a game.

* The Bisons' Mike Hessman, whom Charlie Montoyo called a "Bull Killer" (and who leads the league in homers), missed his third straight game and hasn't played in the series. This is a major blow to the Bisons' lineup, which has been badly depleted by callups and injuries. Montoyo seemed to think that Hessman had hurt his hand (I noticed that he was hit by a pitch at Norfolk on Sunday and didn't play Monday either). Montoyo and his team would probably rather Hessman wasn't ready to play until, oh, Saturday, the day after the Bisons' series in Durham ends.

* Until then, it has two games to go. Tonight, the Bulls' Aneury Rodriguez, who didn't last five innings in either of his last two starts, faces Buffalo righty Dylan Owen at 7:05 PM at the DBAP; the ground ball specialist is making his fifth start for the Bisons since his May callup from Double-A Binghamton. Your only excuse for missing the game is if you're attending the opening night of the American Dance Festival.

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