Durham Bulls Beat Indianapolis Indians: "Best team of the year so far." | Sports

Durham Bulls Beat Indianapolis Indians: "Best team of the year so far."



DBAP/ DURHAM---The quotation above came from Charlie Montoyo after the Bulls blanked Indianapolis, 2-0---the team's first shutout since mid-May---and we asked him about the latest swath of changes to cut through the Durham clubhouse (about which more later). There wasn't much else for Montoyo to say after we prompted him, almost forcibly, and few managers will ever express anything but unequivocal enthusiasm for their team anyway, regardless of its construction; but anyone looking at the current roster would almost surely agree that the Bulls are looking better than they have all year---on paper, at least. It's August, which on the Triple-A calendar means we're in the home stretch, and the hurricane-season Bulls look primed for a charge down Thunder Road.

And they showed why last night at the DBAP, despite some difficulties. One was the sultry air. It was 89 degrees at game time, with oppressive humidity, and starter Jason Cromer (pictured) told us after the game that his shirt got soaked through before he even took the mound. The Iowa native mentioned Durham's summer steaminess a couple of times. It's surely hard to pitch when your body doesn't feel like it's moving free and easy. That's no excuse, though, and Cromer wasn't making one; he was just hazarding guesses why, after a pregame bullpen session that felt good to him and two pretty easy innings to start the game, he suddenly lost control in the third inning. ("I just fell apart," he said. "I don't know what happened.") Cromer fell behind every man who batted in the inning, went to at least a two-ball count on each one (and four three-ball counts), walked two men, and needed 33 pitches to get out of it. Somehow, though, he kept Indianapolis from scoring. The key was inducing cleanup hitter Jeff Clement, the Indians' newly acquired big-time prospect, to pop out to third on a 3-1 pitch with the bases loaded and one out.

And that was how the rest of the game went: Indians threaten to score, Bulls keep them from doing it.

Eric Kratz hit a sharp liner right to Reid Brignac for the first out of the fourth inning. One batter later, Chris Barnwell (batting .177) belted a drive to left that would have been a homer in any other ballpark in the solar system except Fenway. It slammed off the Blue Monster, about 25 feet up, and DBAP left-field specialist Jon Weber played the carom perfectly to hold Barnwell to a single. (Barnwell tripped rounding first, keeping him from trying for second. He was lucky, as Weber would have thrown him out easily.) The Indians put two more men on in the fifth, and Cromer stranded them. All told, he allowed eight baserunners in five innings, for which he needed 93 pitches (53 strikes). He stranded all eight of them.

Julio DePaula relieved in the sixth inning and made himself an even bigger mess. He loaded the bases with no one out on a single, a double and a hit batsman. But then he got light-hitting shortstop Argenis Diaz to hit a tapper right back to him, and DePaula started a 1-2-3 double play before striking out Brian Bixler to end the inning. Bixler's at-bat was a tense one, as DePaula threw a couple of very close pitches that were taken and called balls by home plate umpire Kevin Causey, whose strike zone was a narrow strait all night long. With the count 3-2 on Bixler and two men still in scoring position DePaula went to his slider---he'd been leaning too hard on his fastball, which, although it has good life, he wasn't locating well---and Bixler swung over it for the third strike. DePaula stalked off the mound glaring at Causey, and it's a good thing he didn't say anything, because if he had I wouldn't be able to repeat it on a family web site like this one.

The rest of the relief corps did a better job, but the four Durham pitchers stranded a total of 13 Indians (that sounds vaguely colonialist, sorry). John Meloan tossed a scoreless seventh, although he walked the leadoff man, and Dale Thayer recorded a two-inning save. You'll see Thayer try for more long-form saves, because he won't be a major-league closer and needs to be able to throw multiple innings comfortably. Fortunately, as Charlie Montoyo told us after the game, Jason Childers has established himself as an equally viable late-inning option: "It's almost like having Abreu again, like having two closers," he said, referring to Winston Abreu, who tag-teamed with Thayer earlier in the season to give Montoyo dual late-night bouncers. If the Bulls are in a tight game on Sunday, look for Childers's number to be called.

On the other side of the ball, the Bulls had to contend with Jose Ascanio, just acquired by the Pirates from the Cubs before the trade deadline. Ascanio throws very hard---one of his fastballs clocked in at 99 mph---and complements his heater with a nasty thing that appears to be a slider and arrives in the low 80s. The Bulls, who whiff often regardless of who's pitching, swung and missed 17 times at Ascanio's 99 pitches, and struck out nine times in 6 2/3 innings against him.

But they touched him for two runs. Elliot Johnson deserves credit for the first one. With one out in the fifth inning, Ascanio allowed his only walk, to Rhyne Hughes (who now has a nine-game hitting streak, during which he is batting a ludicrous .600 with seven doubles and a homer). Johnson followed with a grounder to second that looked like it could be an inning-ending double play, but he hustled down the line---Johnson has deceptively good speed---and beat the relay. Then, with Ray Olmedo batting, Johnson stole second base. Olmedo drove him home with a broken-bat looper to left field that fell in for a single.

A brief aside here about Desmond Jennings, who followed Olmedo's hit with a strikeout. This was Jennings's first game as a Bull, and he looks like a very good ballplayer in the making. The 22-year-old center fielder went 2-4 with two Ks and a stolen base, but let the record show that his strikeout after Olmedo's RBI single was the end of a mature at-bat in which he battled back from a 1-2 count, ran it to 3-2, and fouled off a couple of fastballs. Jennings turned on one 96-mph heater from Ascanio and lined a rocket down the left-field line that landed just foul, a few feet shy of the base of the wall. He didn't have anything like an interesting play in the field, but he obviously has good speed out there. He wasn't around the clubhouse after the game to speak with, though, so I can only add that he wore No. 4, a superstar's jersey number to be sure.

Speaking of mature at-bats, Jon Weber gave the Bulls an insurance run in the seventh inning. In his first appearance against Ascanio, you could tell that Weber just wanted to see the pitcher's fastball: he served the first offering into left for an opposite-field single. Weber struck out in the fourth, a little unhappy with the umpire's sorting of balls and strikes (nothing new for the querulous Weber). By the time Weber came up in the seventh, Ascanio was showing faint signs of tiring. Weber knew that, of course, and he was clearly looking for a fastball to turn on. He got it on the second pitch and smacked over the right-field wall for his 10th home run of the season.

It's really fun to watch Weber hit when he's paying attention, because he goes up to the plate with a plan, and that plan depends entirely on the situation. With the Bulls clinging to a 1-0 lead, a quick breath of insurance would allow everyone to exhale a bit. I doubt he'd ever say that he was thinking of hitting a long ball in the seventh last night, but surely it was on his mind. Weber has selective power, i.e. he accesses it when he feels it's needed. He could probably hit more homers if he wanted to, but that would hurt his overall performance, and he knows it. As it stands, he's put together a strong .375 OBP and an .845 OPS. Plus there's the matter of his league-leading 35 doubles. He's already set a personal career high.


* As I've noted before, Jason Cromer has put up average-to-decent general numbers in a minor-league career that is now in its 11th year. This is only his second season in AAA, and so far it's a dramatic improvement on everything he's ever done: Cromer has made 12 starts for Durham and allowed no more than three earned runs in each of them; I doubt there's more than a handful of professional pitchers in America who have done that this season. Cromer has allowed 65 hits and 24 walks in 73 2/3 innings. He has given up just three home runs.

In the press box early on last night, a discussion broke out about the new vogue for the BABIP stat (Batting Average on Balls in Play). Sometimes, pitchers only seem to have a "bad" year when really they're just having bad luck. On the flip side of that, it may be that Cromer is having unusually good luck this year. I'm not about to try to determine Cromer's 2009 BABIP and then compare it to his career mark, but as an indicator of this year's success I would certainly point to Cromer's batting-average-against when it matters most. Cromer is easiest to hit when you lead off against him: .306 is the clip. But from there on out he gets harder to damage. With runners in scoring position, the BAA is .146; with RISP and two outs, it's a stingy .074 (two hits in 27 at-bats). For comparison, the Bulls' most prized starter, Wade Davis, is at .224 and .214, respectively, in those situations; Carlos Hernandez's numbers are .275 and .306.

Cromer was candid and affable when we spoke with him---it was the first time I've been able to do so this season---and had no idea how to explain what he called his "freakishly good" stint this year. He isn't throwing harder (although he was doing that a bit last night, and it cost him his location in the third inning). He hasn't added any new pitches. He did talk about his decision to finally abandon pitching from the windup this year; he works exclusively from the stretch now, and he credited that change with simplifying his mechanics so that he can maintain a consistent release point.

And of course, once he started talking about his mysteriously troublesome third inning, Cromer eventually led us (and, it seemed, himself) to part of the reason for it. Bulls' pitching coach Xavier Hernandez visited the mound during the inning, and Cromer revealed that Hernandez had encouraged him to stop throwing so many offspeed pitches, which alter Cromer's mechanics and tend to transfer too much of his weight to his front side too early in his delivery. The motion for the fastball is less laborious, and it pushes the weight to the back side so that the arm generates better whip and gets higher in the air. There's always an explanation for pretty much everything, it turns out.

Cromer also pointed out that, as a contact pitcher who generates a lot of balls in play (his career K-rate is a modest 6.4/9), he's getting better fielding behind him in Class AAA than he ever did at the lower levels of the minors. That observation was a reminder that pitching isn't done in a vacuum. There's another trendy stat, however, called FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching) that seeks to isolate a pitcher's performance from the fielding behind him. It's not a perfect stat by any means---it's oversimplified, to my eyes---but it can be useful in certain contexts.

The lower the FIP, the better, like ERA. Cromer's lifetime FIP is 2.53. Just for fun, I looked up the FIPs of trade-deadline darlings Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. Halladay's 2009 FIP is 2.83. Lee's is 3.26.

Side note: Cromer and Jeremy Hellickson, his new teammate in the starting rotation, are both from Des Moines, Iowa. I'll have to remember to ask them if they talk Hawkeyes while they're riding the team bus. I wonder if any other team in America has two pitchers from Iowa on the same staff.

* Another new face, Shawn Riggans, looked comfortable enough behind the plate last night, although he went 0-3 with a pair of strikeouts. He'll split time at catcher more or less equally with John Jaso, Montoyo told us.

* A couple of unhappier notes before I sign off. Whenever new players are added to a roster, older ones have to go, of course. To that end, James Houser and Ray Sadler were released by the Rays on Saturday. "It was a tough day for me," said Montoyo, who had to inform the two players of their dismissals. "If it was up to me we would have 45 people in here." I was a little surprised that Houser, who is only 24, wasn't sent to Double-A Montgomery for more seasoning; but he may have been making more money than the Rays wanted to pay a player at that level. That was certainly true of Sadler, who is also, at age 29, too old to be playing anywhere but Class AAA or higher.

The news jarred me, because just yesterday I was writing again about Sadler's disability when it comes to hitting lefties, which is so severe that he is essentially an amputated player in terms of his overall skills. Nonetheless, he plays hard and can hurt right-handed pitching, and he also seems to be a good guy; I bet he'll catch on somewhere else.

As for Houser---who replaced Jason Cromer, ironically, on the Bulls' roster in April after starting the season on the disabled list with a minor injury---I haven't tried to conceal my skepticism and sometimes outright disdain for his performance this year. He has seemed unfocused and timid on the mound to me, and the only adjustment he made (that I could discern, anyway) didn't work. He, like Sadler, is likely to find another team, too. Nonetheless, it's a bit painful to see how quickly and thoroughly players are tossed aside and forgotten when the front office is done with them: Shawn Riggans was wearing Sadler's uniform number last night, and Jorge Julio was wearing Houser's. As Jason Cromer noted, the heavy heat of the year is upon us, and in the sultry August calm before the pennant winds begin to blow, the Triple-A ships are at horse latitudes. It's undoubtedly ruthless and wastefully, horifically brutal, but it's necessary to throw some of the animals overboard in order to complete the voyage.

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