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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Durham Bulls edge Lehigh Valley IronPigs: Charlie's Angels

Posted by on Sat, Jun 26, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Jeremy Hellickson on the mound earlier this year
  • Photo by D. L. Anderson
  • Jeremy Hellickson on the mound earlier this year
DBAP/DURHAM—After the Durham Bulls beat Lehigh Valley, 2-1, last night, Charlie Montoyo stood in front of the dugout, waiting to watch the Friday night fireworks. He doesn't usually do this, but it wasn't a usual night for him: He had with him his wife and his two sons. The younger child, Alex, as you may know, is battling the mortal threats of Ebstein's Anomaly, a rare condition that could end his life heartbreakingly early. Alex's presence, along with his family's—they'll be in Durham for a month with Montoyo—was a reminder that the Bulls' manager has been visited by angels, or by some deliverer of grace that protected his son. Montoyo is a very religious man, and the sight of him looking expectantly, joyfully skyward with his family made you think—no matter your own spirituality—that there is some accessible divinity which rewards faith and hard work.

On top of that sight, plus a Bulls victory, it was announced that Montoyo has been invited, for the second straight year, to the Futures game during the All-Star break in Anaheim, where he'll join player invitees Jeremy Hellickson (who got the win last night, his league-leading 10th) and Desmond Jennings. Montoyo is also managing the International League in the Triple-A All-Star game, so he'll be working straight through the hiatus without getting a respite. Well, faith doesn't either.

Last night's game had some wings in it, too, and not just because it recovered from a slow first inning and flew to a 2:31 finish. We were treated to something that we haven't seen much of this year: a pitcher's duel. In fact, it was an even better one than the score indicates. Had a couple of lightly-hit balls bounced or flared differently, and had one of them been fielded as it should have been, the game could easily have been scoreless through nine innings. As it was, we got to see a pair of pitchers fully control the evening anyway, and for real baseball fans it was an entertaining and instructive night. Montoyo himself offered the opinion that the Lehigh Valley starter, Nate Bump (with a name like that, he should be a detective with his own sitcom), was "fun to watch." That was easy for him to say—the Bulls touched him for two runs in the first inning via a couple of bloop hits and a hit-and-run grounder, then hung on to win—but great to hear an opposing manager praise good baseball, wherever it came from.

Singing some of those praises after the jump.

The evolution of Jeremy Hellickson continues apace. Last night, he did something you don't see him do much: he threw something other than a fastball in the first inning. It was a curveball, if memory serves, and he may have mixed in a changeup as well.

And as the game wore on, Hellickson went to his secondary pitches more and more. His curve kept dropping in for strikes, or the IronPigs would swing and miss at it as it hooked away from right-handed hitters. His changeup, once his go-to pitch but now a more discreet part of his arsenal, was the best it's been in a while. He could drop it down and away from right-handers as well as fade it to lefties. He worked in a few cutters, especially to exemplary effect in a crafty at-bat against Greg Dobbs, just down from Philadelphia (the 'Pigs parent club). Dobbs, 32, has been in the big leagues since 2007 and has been a dangerous platoon outfielder and pinch-hitter. But he has struggled this year in limited duty—he hasn't been used much—and was passed through waivers and then sent to Durham to join the IronPigs.

With the addition of Dobbs, plus the Phillies' top prospect (according to Baseball America), outfielder Domonic [sic] Brown, the IronPigs suddenly have a much better lineup than they did just the day before yesterday. Although they came into last night's game with nearly the worst record in the International League, they were an object lesson in Charlie Montoyo's oft-iterated method of preparing for opponents. He said it again last night after the game: "I don't look at their record: teams get better real quick, and that's one team that got pretty good."

It seemed like Hellickson was perhaps staying away from the fastball because the Lehigh Valley roster is suddenly stocked with dangerous hitters, some of whom have big-time power. The 3-4-5 batters last night, John Mayberry, Jr. (the super-athletic son of the former Royals' great), Andy Tracy and Cody Ransom, have 36 homers between them this year.

Those three are also strikeout-prone, though, especially Ransom, who has the third-most in the league. So perhaps Hellickson's game plan was to get them to chase pitches outside the zone—Ransom fanned late in the game on a pitch (by Winston Abreu) more than a foot outside (and then asked the ump, on his way back to the dugout, if it was a strike—are you serious? the ump should have said). Hellickson's 91 pitches produced a whopping 19 swings-and-misses by this free-swinging team—12 of them with his first 47 pitches (!)—and most of those whiffs came on curveballs and changeups. He struck out seven batters, and five of the Ks were against Dobbs, Mayberry, Jr., Ransom and Tracy. All of that seemed to add up to a strategy in action.

But looking back, it was clear that something else was driving this getaway car. Hellickson allowed hits to three of the first six men he faced last night, all hard-hit on misplaced fastballs, and he told us after the game that he just didn't have command of his heater. There was no predetermined game plan: "I didn't know what kind of hitters they were [or] what they liked to hit," he said. The problem was that "I couldn't throw [the fastball] where I wanted it." So he went to his back pockets for his other pitches—'cause he keeps them in his back pockets—and used them to great effect. It was a very mature performance from Hellilckson, who improved to 10-2 and lowered his ERA to 2.19. He gave up only one more hit after the second inning, and the run he allowed scored on a fifth-inning grounder that ticked off the glove of third baseman Joe Dillon for an error. The bummer was that Hellickson had done a good job, after allowing a leadoff double and then his only walk of the night, fielding a sacrifice bunt attempt and throwing out the lead runner at third. After Dillon's error allowed the run to score, there were men on first and second with one out. Hellickson bore down and fanned Dobbs and Mayberry, Jr. on six pitches.

Here's the kind of approach Hellickson used on a night when he had to improvise. Back in the third inning, facing Dobbs, he went like this:

Curveball (called strike) — 0-1.
Cutter (fouled off) — 0-2.
Fastball (inside) — 1-2.
Curveball (in the dirt low and away; a setup pitch) — 2-2.
Cutter (broken bat, looped on a bounce or two to first base; Chris Richard threw to Hellickson covering).

That at-bat was followed by this sequence to Mayberry, Jr., who had hit a ringing double in his first at-bat:

Curveball (in the dirt; Mayberry, Jr. laid off of it) — 1-0.
Curveball (swinging strike) — 1-1.
Changeup (swinging strike) — 1-2.
Changeup (low and away, ball two) — 2-2.
Changeup (swing strike three).

So Hellickson had to dominate with auxiliary weapons, but still got his strikeouts, his zero earned runs, and his victory. Yet in his own way, 'Pigs starter Nate Bump was even more dominant with his own stuff than Hellickson was with his. According to Bump's Wikipedia page, his fastball was recently clocked at 103 mph. Who knows where that news came from, but I doubt it's true. For one thing, Bump is on the other side of two shoulder surgeries; for another, last night he topped out at about 87. He did a great job working all over the strike zone, was unafraid to pitch inside even with his sub-90-mph fastball (he moved Chris Richard off the plate with great assertiveness), and made the Bulls swing at pitches they didn't look comfortable hitting. Perhaps the Durham hitters would tell you that they made Bump look good (like blemish cream—sorry, just saw Please Give) by swinging at tempting but damaging pitches they shouldn't have—it was certainly interesting that he got only three swings-and-misses, all of them early in the game, struck out zero batters, and walked zero batters (a rare accomplishment in a 106-pitch outing, getting none of either). But to my eyes, and to Montoyo's, he earned his success. The former first-round draft pick was the victim of terrible luck in the first inning, when Desmond Jennings and and Dan Johnson both it bloop singles, and when J. J. Furmaniak deposited a hit-and-run bouncer through the second-base hole. Bump got a lot of ground ball outs, including three straight to third base in a 1-2-3, five-pitch fifth inning.

One other fun pitching note: R. J. Swindle, the lefty sidearmer whose curveball normally comes in at the unthinkably and comically slow speed of 53 mph, got Mayberry, Jr. to strike out on a hook that was clocked at an even 50 mph last night. I think you could probably reach for a drink, take a sip, set the drink down, and swallow the sip in the time it took that pitch to travel from Swindle's hand to Alvin Colina's glove. Swindle threw two perfect innings in relief of Hellickson, needing just 19 pitches (15 for strikes). Nothing was clocked at more than 80 mph. Winston Abreu tossed an easy-breezy ninth for his team-leading seventh save. He has been sizzling lately: Abreu hasn't allowed a run since May 18, a 12-appearance, 13-inning stretch that has featured 20 strikeouts. Abreu is one of Charlie Montoyo's very favorite angels, and it's nice to see that he seems to have recovered fully from his surgery (for an aneurysm) and is back to slamming the door on opponents, even though his velocity is down a bit. But as Swindle and Bump—and even the normally hard-throwing Hellickson—showed tonight, the secret of pitching is the secret of real estate: not urgency but location.

Some notes:

* Despite the win, the Bulls have not been hitting well lately. They've scored just 30 runs over their last nine games, and a bunch of players are struggling: Dan Johnson, Chris Richard, Fernando Perez, Desmond Jennings, Angel Chavez—they're all in little troughs right now. (Perez has really been floundering, although he did bang an opposite-field triple to the right-centerfield gap last night, and make a fine leaping catch in front of the Blue Monster.) With Matt Joyce gone to the majors—a bit more on that below—and Jose Lobaton day-to-day with a knee strain (which means immediate playing time for light-hitting Dioner Navarro, when he arrives from Tampa following his demotion), the team suddenly lacks punch. And they have had a terrible time cashing in on run-scoring opportunities. The long road trip that just ended featured what seemed like countless failures to deliver runners in scoring position. If the long ball derby of the early season is over—slugger Ryan Shealy is gone, too, having defected to the Red Sox—the Bulls will have to do a better job of converting their chances with timelier hitting.

* A glimpse into Montoyo's managerial style, which hinges on respecting his players' initiative, and also into the kind of struggles the Bulls have had pushing runs across the plate from third base: Last night, after Perez tripled with one out in the eighth inning and Jennings walked, J. J. Furmaniak came up with a perfect opportunity for a squeeze bunt. A suicide squeeze, in fact, seemed in order, with the speedy Perez on third and Furmaniak's surehandedness with the bunting bat. Indeed, a squeeze play was on, but it was a safety squeeze—the runner on third waits for contact before coming home, rather than breaking when the pitcher begins his delivery—and Furmaniak pushed his bunt too far out toward the mound. Reliever Oscar Villareal fielded it and hung Perez up in a rundown, where he was tagged out easily. I asked Montoyo after the game why he hadn't called for the suicide squeeze, and Montoyo said that he hadn't called the bunt at all; it was Furmaniak's play. That came as a surprise. Another surprise was watching Justin Ruggiano steal third base, twice, with two outs (in the first inning and again in the third). To get thrown out in that situation is one of the cardinal sins of baserunning—Ruggiano will score from second on almost any two-out hit, so the extra base is almost meaningless—so it has to be the case that Ruggiano is running on his own (perhaps to pad his stolen base total, now up to 17). Seems Montoyo likes to let his angels do their own flying.

* Substantial roster changes marked the road trip. Gone are Joyce and Shealy, and Elliot Johnson and Carlos Hernandez are both out with injuries. (Johnson probably won't return for at least a week, and there's no timetable for Hernandez, who is never very far away from his next injury.) Two new arms, Darin Downs and Justin Garcia, are up from Montgomery and have combined for seven relief innings and five runs allowed. Omar Luna, in his second emergency stint, had one ridiculous 4-4, two-double game at Louisville but otherwise has five singles and a walk in 22 plate appearances—he actually has more wild pitches thrown than walks drawn, having mopped up on the mound for 2/3 of an inning on Thursday at the tail end of a blowout loss to Indianapolis. J. J. Furmaniak took time off to be with his wife for the birth of their child, missing much of the trip, and R. J. Swindle will do the same after Monday's game—not attend the birth of J. J. Furmaniak's kid, which would be weird, but his own. If we start calling Desmond Jennings "D. J.," will he, too, leave to attend a childbirth somewhere? Dan Johnson already has two kids and his wife, who frequents the DBAP with their two kids, doesn't look pregnant. Elliot Johnson is already out with an injury.

Well anyway, the point is that the times are a-changin', and here's betting that they change some more, and soon. The trade deadline is just over a month away; the Rays have glaring holes to fill on the big-league roster—BOY DO THEY EVER! OMFG! THAT'S TWICE THIS YEAR THEY'VE BEEN NO-HIT!—and there are too many guys spinning their wheels in Durham to no apparent end. Dan Johnson, Justin Ruggiano and Dale Thayer (the 'stache is back, by the way!), just to name the first three that come to mind, can't possibly be doing themselves or the Rays much good toiling mechanically in the Dirty D. It's nice to have them here—the Bulls are coasting toward the playoffs and we haven't even reached the All-Star break—but I'm sure that they, like anyone else trying to do the best work they can, would like a chance to do it either at the big-league level, or somewhere that seems to offer them that chance. Hey, you know, like I said in re Dan Johnson, the, uh, Angels need a power-hitting lefty first baseman, don't they?

* Game two of the series is on Saturday at 7:05 PM, pitting the Bulls' Brian Baker—filling in for the injured Carlos Hernandez, Baker tossed five no-hit innings at Indianapolis on Monday—versus the IronPigs' Joe Savery. Savery, a left-hander, was the Phillies' No. 1 draft pick in 2007. He hasn't lived up to expectations so far, but to keep with today's theme, the sky's the limit, no?

* Sure, Michael Jackson, in memoriam, blah blah blah—the Bulls' sound guys played his songs as walkup music for the Durham lineup's first at-bat (I thought maybe the hitters would wear just one batting glove as tribute, but no)—but everyone's already all over that one. I'll go with this, instead: countless millions of men of a certain age still miss you, Farrah Fawcett.

Editor's note [June 28, 2010]: The original version of this post suggested that Charlie Montoyo's son Alex is "recovering" from Ebstein's Anomaly. We received the following note of clarification from family member Suzanne Startt:

"I just wanted to clarify this statement. Alex is not recovering. He’s had multiple heart surgeries, the last one was in July, 2009. However, he’s scheduled for another this spring perhaps and will still need to have a heart transplant before he’s an adult. Ebstein’s is not a recoverable condition. However, it’s been “manageable.” As a family, we are blessed with the positive outcome of his surgeries and continue to be hopeful.

We appreciate your kind words and appreciation for the faith it takes to manage this process.

Suzanne Startt
“grandma” to Tyson and Alex"

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