Durham Bulls drop Charlotte Knights: "Biggest win of the year" | Sports
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Friday, August 13, 2010

Durham Bulls drop Charlotte Knights: "Biggest win of the year"

Posted by on Fri, Aug 13, 2010 at 6:00 AM

Richard De Los Santos tied Jeremy Hellickson for the league lead in wins
  • photo courtesy of Durham Bulls
  • Richard De Los Santos tied Jeremy Hellickson for the league lead in wins
DBAP/ DURHAM—"Biggest win of the year"? That's what Charlie Montoyo called the Bulls' 6-2 decision over Charlotte last night, extending their division lead over the Knights back to a season-high 15 games, We could have asked Montoyo why he would place such a laurel on last night's well-played but rather pedestrian victory. In a year in which your team has led the division since April 19; had a double-digit lead in that division for the last three weeks; scored the most runs in the International League and allowed the fewest; manufactured the best record in American organized baseball through about 80% of the season; and skipped right past the recent promotion to the big leagues of its best pitcher (Jeremy Hellickson) and hitter (Dan Johnson) without missing a step: in a year like this one, can any one win really be singled out as the "biggest"—or even as "big"?

But it was more fun not to ask him why he said that, because it gave us a puzzle to solve.

A rundown of last night's game leads to a few guesses hazarded after the jump.

But before we leap: Hey, Bulls fans! Rocco Baldelli is comin' back! The link is broken, but Marc Topkin of the St. Pete Times is reporting that Baldelli will (re)join the Bulls early next week while they're on the road. The Woonsocket Rocket is a story in himself, one I'll leave for another time, but let's just say that this reporter, who came to the Bulls' party long after Rocco left it, is looking forward to his long-time-coming return. I hope he went on a beer run!

Charlie Montoyo agreed that it's great that his team hasn't suffered much dropoff in run production despite the loss of Dan Johnson (and Hank Blalock, and Ryan Shealy, and Matt Joyce—and now Elliot Johnson, away till Saturday at his brother's wedding). But as he is wont to say, and repeated last night: "At the end of the day, if your pitching gives you a chance, you've got a chance." Last night that chance was given, generously, by Richard De Los Santos, who tossed seven innings of five-hit, two-run ball against a Charlotte Knights lineup that is, despite the team's record, rather dangerous. Once again, De Los Santos had nothing especially illuminating to tell us after he quieted the Knights, because there is no occult or esoteric force behind what he does. "Attack the zone," he said, and he could have added, "the lower part of it." Almost everything was down, down, down until a blip in the sixth inning (two flyouts, a walk, a pair of singles). The changeup was excellent, and aptly complemented the two-seam fastball. The curveball was decent enough. He got 11 outs on the ground, five in the air.

And he added five strikeouts. The curmudgeon in me feels compelled to point out that De Los Santos's strikeouts came partially because the current Charlotte roster swings and misses a lot: 14 times at his 100 pitches last night. For the series, the Knights swung and missed 57 times at 459 pitches (12.4%); the Bulls, by contrast, did it 26 times at 574 pitches (4.5%). The Bulls are a pretty patient team. They are happy to work deep counts—note not just the disparity in swinging-strike percentage, but in how many more pitches the Charlotte staff had to throw over three days—but the three pitchers who started for Durham against the Knights, and logged 15 2/3 of the 29 total innings pitched in the series, are not high-strikeout hurlers.

And despite the final score, last night's seven frames were not low-leverage innings for De Los Santos. For one thing, the score was only 4-2 when he departed, and that meant that every time a Knight reached base, the tying run came to the plate—and Charlotte has several players capable of hitting homers against anyone. For another, the Bulls badly needed him to go deep into the game regardless of the score. After Wednesday's 11-inning gauntlet, which ate up five Durham relievers, and with a doubleheader looming at Gwinnett on Saturday, the bullpen was pretty much just Joe Bateman and maybe, if you really needed them, R. J. Swindle (who threw "only" 18 pitches on Wednesday) and Carlos Hernandez, just activated from the disabled list but not really, you know, a reliever; Montoyo was hoping to use him to start one of the games in Saturday's twinbill (he can probably only go three innings/45 pitches anyway, Montoyo said). So there was plenty of pressure on De Los Santos to eat up some innings—and even with permission from the Rays' brass to increase his pitch limit, he still only had 100 to throw. He used every last one.

De Los Santos has been on an 85-pitch, six-inning limit recently. So it was a surprise to seem him come out for the seventh inning having already thrown 93 pitches, especially because Carlos Hernandez himself had been warming in the bullpen during the sixth inning, leading me to think that the plan all along had been to let Hernandez return to action—he's been out for more than three weeks with an injury—by piggybacking for a few innings on De Los Santos's start. But in fact Hernandez was an emergency solution meant for use only if De Los Santos ran into trouble—there was really no one to bridge any gap between De Los Santos and Joe Bateman. Sure enough, De Los Santos allowed a leadoff infield single in the seventh. But then he got Rob Hudson to hit a comebacker that the very athletic De Los Santos snared, starting a 1-6-3 double play. Three pitches later, he struck out Alejandro de Aza looking to end a seven-pitch inning, and his stellar night.

(Aside: Calling De Los Santos "athletic" is not just a throwaway. I've mentioned before his excellent, agile pickoff move, and he fields his position with great reflexive quickness. Back in June, when the injury-depleted Bulls had no middle-infield depth, De Los Santos was actually on Charlie Montoyo's list of reserves in case Angel Chavez or J. J. Furmaniak had to leave the game—De Los Santos would have played second base. I asked him about his position-player prowess after last night's game, and De Los Santos's face lit up. He would love to play infield or outfield, he told me, though he knows he's unlikely to get that chance—especially if he keeps pitching this way.)

Had De Los Santos failed to do what he did last night, you'd be looking at a bullpen not merely worn out but in fact almost blown out, i.e. undriveable, and at a manager and an organization in scramble/panic mode and probably forced to make a roster move lower in the minors simply to shore up a team that is basically gliding toward the playoffs but in a state of shocking rear-axle disrepair. That was one clue why the win was the year's biggest not just for the result but for the way the result was achieved. Thanks to De Los Santos, and to Bateman, who took scoreless care of the last two innings after the Bulls added insurance runs, the relief corps is now close to revived. Yes, they lack depth—it's really just a six-man gang until further notice—but they have rest. Going into the teeth of a doubleheader, with games likely to be started by short-leash dawgs Hernandez and Aneury Rodriguez (thus requiring more bullpen work), last night's pitching efficiency was critical.

De Los Santos paid for the two walks he allowed—both of them scored. But he also overcame a pair of fielding errors, one by Omar Luna (on a tough play that could justifiably have been scored a hit) and another by Angel Chavez. Each of those errors prolonged innings and led to jams, but De Los Santos escaped both of them. Perhaps best of all about what he's done for the Bulls is the calm with which he's done it. He wasn't expected to do much in Durham this year, and has been crawling out of major injury holes for long stretches of his career, but the 26-year-old Dominican has answered the call at the Triple-A level. He has thrown 127 innings this season—a third again as many as his career high—but said after getting his league-leading (!) 12th win that his arm feels just fine. He's the ace of the staff: Richard De Los Santos is the ace of the Durham Bulls' starting rotation. Another reason why last night's win was the year's biggest: in it, De Los Santos unarguably established his primacy.

(It certainly helps, the curmudgeon puts in, that the Bulls are averaging over 6.5 runs per game when De Los Santos starts.)

***

The Bulls got to work in the second inning last night against Jeff Marquez, whom they saw for the third time this year (the first two results differed widely, one good, one bad). They tagged him for four hits and a walk in a three-run second inning, including a ringing opposite-field double by Leslie Anderson, who is now batting .462 in his first week as a Bull. The double was his first extra-base hit, and it turned a threat into a rally. He added another opposite-field hit later, plus a walk, but perhaps more intriguingly, he just missed a homer in one of his at-bats, getting just out in front of a pitch and blasting a deep foul ball out past the right-field stands. Anderson isn't really a power hitter, as we know, but a few homers here and there would boost his value tremendously. If you're just going to hit singles, you have to do it at an extraordinary rate, like Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter (or, to go further back, Rod Carew) at their best; that's hard to sustain over the long haul. You have to draw some walks, too, and Anderson has only 24 this season in over 300 plate appearances in the minor leagues.

(Aside #2: Around the time in late winter that the Rays signed Anderson when he defected from Cuba, he was first reported to be 26 years old. According to current data, turns out he's actually 28. Major League Baseball has instituted harsher penalties for lying about age, so it isn't a surprise to discover the two additional years on Anderson's odometer.)

***

Another reason why the win was "biggest," or at least big: If you've been attending or reading about recent games, the Bulls' failure to drive in men on base has been rather epic lately. They stranded 25 baserunners on Tuesday and Wednesday, when they loaded the bases three times with no outs and failed to drive in any runs. And, weirdly, they seemed to have developed a habit of scoring runs early, then mounting lots of unconsummated threats in the middle innings. When you do that, it allows your opponent to think there's still a chance to come back if you have the lead; and it's increasingly frustrating to try to keep generating challenges if you're trailing but can't convert opportunities as the game wanes.

Last night looked like more of the same. After the three-run second inning, the Bulls put eight men on base from the third through the sixth and plated only one of them—and all that lone sixth-inning run did was add back a tally that Charlotte had erased with a run in the top of the same inning. Durham left five runners in scoring position over those four middle innings.

But they added single runs in the seventh and eighth, one on an RBI groundout by Angel Chavez, the other on a screaming double down the right-field line by Dioner Navarro, who was 3-5 as the designated hitter, pushing his batting average up over .300. He is also drawing a lot of walks, and his attitude seems surprisingly positive, given his recent demotion to the minors for the first time since 2006. He could have pouted, or malingered, or just plain given up, but Navarro is not only producing at a much higher level than he was with Tampa, he's also upbeat in the clubhouse. Given the ongoing struggles of Kelly Shoppach, the Tampa catcher who has Navarro's job right now, Navarro is putting heat on the Rays to reconsider.

(Aside #3: One danger of having an MLB rehabber on your team is that he cares even less than the rest of the players about anything that isn't his own stats. To wit, Mark Teahen, currently jousting as a bored Knight while he finishes recovering from a broken finger, basically gave that finger to his own teammates last night when he loafed over toward Desmond Jennings's broken-bat looper down the right-field line in the eighth, pursuing it like an empty beer can that he knows he should fetch out of the water but just doesn't feel like it on this second-rate beach. Jennings exploited Teahen's lollygagging and took second base. Teahen didn't exactly race after Navarro's double shortly afterward, either. The 2010 Bulls may not have the "team spirit" of the 2009 model, but they look like guys who care and have a good time together. It helps, of course—the curmudgeon returns to interject—that they're such a successful team: They have, as poet laureate Donald Hall put it in Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, "the lightness [and] resiliency that you can see rising like an aura from the bodies of winning ballplayers." Even the Bulls who are struggling or injured have a bounce in their attitude these days.)

Last night's win gave the Bulls a 5-2 homestand, and after we finished talking with Charlie Montoyo in his office, we walked out into a clubhouse crowded with heavy duffel bags and busy with packing. The Bulls are, as I write this, on a bus to Gwinnett County, Ga., and they won't be back until August 24. They'll play 12 games in 11 days in three cities with no days off in the swelter of mid-August. It's going to be the longest, most grueling road trip of the season, and it won't be a surprise to see the Bulls go into a little slump. It continues to matter not much at all whether they play well from here on out—a 15-game lead with 26 to play is, uh, comfortable—and, away for a long while from the comforts of home, fatigue and ennui and heat and nagging injuries may catch up with them. The Bulls could return in a week and a half having already clinched the division title; but they could just as easily limp in sporting a 4-8 road bruise. If the latter, though, don't be alarmed. It'll heal in plenty of time for the playoffs.

That's another reason why last night's win may have looked, to Montoyo, like the year's biggest: It virtually proofed the upcoming South Division victory lap against any breakdowns. The Bulls played very well in all facets of the game: the pitching was superb, the hitting was timely, sacrifices and hit-and-runs were executed perfectly, and even the Bulls' two fielding errors were committed on tough plays—plays where fielders were trying, even if they failed. All a manager can really ask is that his players give solid effort and that they try to rise as high as they can to the occasion. Last night, for the first time in the three-game series against the closest thing they have to competition in their division, the Bulls did that.

Speaking of competition, an update on a likely post-season opponent: the Louisville Bats and their Great Glass Elevator. Louisville started the season a dismal 8-19. They recovered from their horrendous opening, though, to play .500 ball for a stretch of over 50 games thereafter; but after losing the first three games of their lone regular-season series at the DBAP in late June, they were back down to 36-45 and had sunk 13 games behind first-place Columbus in the International League West division. The next night, though, they pounded the Bulls, 10-5, and since then haven't looked back—or should I say, haven't looked down. After beating Toledo last night, the high-flying Bats are an astounding 32-6 (!!) since that third loss to Durham—and now in first place in their division, which offers tougher opponents than Durham's.

What's more, the Reds' top Double-A prospect, Dave Sappelt, was promoted from Carolina to Louisville yesterday along with the impressive left-handed reliever Jeremy Horst. (My favorite thing about Horst's player page on the Minor League Baseball web site: he is from Cheyenne, Wyo., but attended a college by the name of Armstrong Atlantic St. University. It's in Savannah, Ga. Before that he went to Iowa Western Community College. I'm guessing it wasn't for the academics?) Sappelt, who was batting a robust, league-leading .361 as a Mudcat (and hails from closer to home: Graham, N.C.—he played college baseball at Coastal Carolina), went 2-5 in his debut last night with two doubles and a walk; Horst, for his part, tossed two scoreless relief innings in the Bats' win, which is described, delightfully, by the Bats' (I assume) in-house game-wrap writer, one Shannon Siders, as "a 10-4 dirtying [my italics: dirtying?] of the Toledo Mud Hens." If Louisville beats Durham in a post-season game, will Siders call it a castration?

The Bats have also added big-league pitcher Micah Owings, recently optioned from the major-league squad simply because, according to manager Dusty Baker, he wasn't getting enough innings with Cincinnati. Not only that, they also sport a veteran reliever you may recall from last year: Jason Isringhausen, who still refuses to let his snap-crackle-pop, stapled-duct-taped-and-Bondo'd elbow (shoulder? wrist? all of the above?) end his career. Isringhausen was briefly a Durham Bull early in 2009, getting his post-surgery arm back into shape while pitching his way up to Tampa—where he promptly blew out the arm again. Now he's trying the same comeback trick, one more operation later, with the Reds. (His Louisville player page features his 2009 photo in a Bulls cap and uniform.) Neither Owings nor Isringhausen is likely still to be with the Bats by the time Isringhausen turns 38, on Sept. 7—which would also be the off-day before the Bulls play Louisville again (should Louisville hold on to win the West)—but in the mean time, the two oldsters are helping to stabilize a very young, very talented team that lacks only one thing: maturity. Of course, September 1 roster expansion can make a dog's breakfast of almost any Triple-A roster, no matter how good it is; but be on the alert if and when Louisville re-enters the Bulls' radar after Labor Day. Smart money is, I regret to inform you, on them to win the Governors' Cup. Moreover, they'll be looking for revenge against the Durham Bulls, who make an annual practice of knocking them out of the playoffs.

(Aside #4: Justin Ruggiano was out of the lineup last night. It's common for Charlie Montoyo to bench players the day after an ejection—although on a 96-degree August day, it may very well feel like a reward rather than a punishment—and Ruggiano had gotten himself tossed toward the end of Wednesday's game, when Montoyo had only one reserve with which to replace him. But as if to keep Ruggiano from getting too relaxed and happy with his night off, Montoyo sent him in to play right field last night in the ninth. To add insult to injury, Montoyo made sure to insert Ruggiano in Omar Luna's spot in the lineup—ninth—with the smirking implication that Ruggiano, with his untimely antics on Wednesday, had pushed himself all the way down on Montoyo's depth chart: at the bottom of the order; as the A-ball scrub's dregs-of-the-game replacement.)

I'm guessing that the Bulls' team bus is somewhere south of Charlotte right about now—I assume they beat the Knights there by, oh, 15 minutes. (Did they jeer at the place as they go by? The general consensus among the Bulls is that "Charlotte," by which I mean Fort Mill, S.C., is probably the worst place to play in the International League.) Somewhere near the front, Charlie Montoyo is either calmly sketching out Friday's lineup, with a full complement of available relievers, or sleeping peacefully. If the latter, the curmudgeon can't find anything to quarrel with: After all, his team just got its biggest win of the year.

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