Gwinnett Braves sink Durham Bulls: Meteorology

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DBAP/ DURHAM---The weather changed abruptly yesterday. At game time Sunday we were still in the sweaty languor of late summer, but the heat and sun fell out of the sky overnight. The season that replaced them on Monday wasn't so much autumnal as alien---as if the primer-gray clouds, the unsettled breeze and the melancholy dampness had been imported from a British Isle, or Soviet-bloc Europe.

And the Bulls' meteorology changed, too, with the same suddenness. Not only did their seven-game winning-streak come to an ugly end in a sluggish, poorly-played (by both teams) 8-6 loss to Gwinnett, but the date, August 31, marked the beginning of Bull-poaching season. Five players---a full rundown of them below (well, almost full; you'll see)---left the DBAP for Tampa Bay after last night's loss. It was less meteorology that hit the Bulls' clubhouse than a meteor, which decimated the squad. Or, put another way, if September has come to take the sun and heat out of the sky, then its accompanying major-league roster expansion has swiped some of the stars, too.

And that's not all. Two more Bulls, Jason Childers and Jon Weber, are off to join Team USA for the Baseball World Cup, to be played in Europe later this month. (Why doesn't the IBAF schedule this tournament two weeks later? Then the minor-league season would be over, and none of the players on Team USA---all of whom are in Double-A and Triple-A---would have to miss the playoffs.) Childers and Weber have been near the front of the Bulls' charge to the brink of the post-season---the Bulls have a one-game lead in the IL South Division, and a 4.5 game lead in the wild card race with seven left to play---but they won't be here to help push the team across the threshold.

More's the pity, because both of those stalwarts had a chance to help the Bulls notch one more victory last night, and both came up short. How that happened, and what happens next to the Bulls, follows.

Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo knows he's beholden to the Tampa front office. That doesn't bother him; working for the greater good of the organization is his job, and he likes his job. It was fitting that, on a night when 20% of the roster was to depart for the big-league club, Montoyo's first responsibility to that exodus came with the game's first pitch. Jeff Bennett will be called up today, but in the interest of getting him a little work, the Rays ordered Montoyo to give Bennett two innings---not even close to how long you hope a starter will last. Bennett wasn't especially good, allowing hits to five of the 11 hitters he faced, plus two other balls hit deep to left field but subdued for outs by the heavy air. Tampa's bullpen needs help, so they might as well call Bennett up and see what he can do for them; but he's really just a hope-this-stuff-works treatment.

Bennett's early departure forced Montoyo to use Rayner Oliveros, just called up from Double-A Montgomery, for much longer than he might have wished. Oliveros went 4 2/3 innings and allowed eight hits and four runs, walking two. His fastball topped out at 88 mph, he threw something slurve-like in the 80-mph range, and there was a soft changeup in there as well. Not very encouraging stuff, although if Oliveros can be crafty with it---and if Montoyo has the luxury of using him in more limited action from here on out---he may be useful. He struck out five batters, a positive sign.

And when Oliveros left the game, the Bulls were somehow still in it---tied, in fact. Although Durham been outhit 13-8, Gwinnett hadn't taken full advantage of their legion opportunities. The Bulls, on the other hand, had been unusually efficient, scoring six runs on eight hits and stranding just four in six innings. Matt Joyce had capped a four-run first with a long, two-run homer, his 16th, Elliot Johnson added an RBI double, and the Bulls got help from an error to tie the score in the last of the sixth.

Childers came on with two outs and a man on in the top of the seventh and struck out Clint Sammons to end the inning for Oliveros. That made him the pitcher of record, which was intentional on Charlie Montoyo's part: he was trying to give Childers a chance to earn his 10th win, a very high total for a reliever. But after the Bulls left two men on the last of the seventh, Childers allowed a leadoff single in the eighth to Brian Barton. Gregor Blanco then attempted a sacrifice, and pushed a good bunt up the first base line. Childers may not have had a chance to throw out Blanco, who runs well, but he made it academic by bobbling the ball. It was Blanco's fifth single of the night. (He nearly had a sixth in the top of the ninth, but his liner to center---ironically, the hardest ball he hit all night---was caught by Fernando Perez.)

Wes Timmons also attempted a sacrifice bunt, and his was not a very good one: he punched it too hard to the third base side of the mound. Childers had a play on it, but the speed of the ball surprised him, and it rolled right past him for a second straight "single."

Bases loaded, no outs. Childers recovered to strike out Brandon Jones with a curveball, but then he fell behind Brooks Conrad, who wouldn't bite on Childers's first-pitch cutter, and one pitch later it was 2-0. Childers tossed a changeup in the hopes that Conrad would get on top of it and hit a double-play grounder, but Conrad went down and got it, smacking a run-scoring single to right. Childers induced the double-play ball he was looking for from the next batter, Barbaro Canizares, and prevented further damage. But it was 7-6, Braves, and glumly so: poor fielding execution, rather than poor pitching, put Childers on the hook for his sixth loss, rather than setting him up for his 10th win. "We didn't execute those plays, and that's probably why we lost," Montoyo said later.

After the double play, Childers jogged down to the bullpen (a place pitchers rarely go while they're in the game). I thought he was taking the game ball down as a souvenir---he made an exchange with another pitcher out there---but it turned out that he was receiving, not giving: "I was mad and I needed a dip," he said.

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As for his departure from the Bulls to join Team USA today, Childers (left) said it was "bittersweet" but that it was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." I'll publish a longer piece about him in the Independent Weekly's print edition on Wednesday---and, hey, the Indy's free, so have at it.

And will Childers be back next year? I'm guessing no. He mentioned the other day that he had some interest in exploring other teams. Certainly if the Atlanta Braves came calling, Childers would jump: he and his family live in Georgia, about three hours from Atlanta. But he added that he really likes the Tampa Bay organization, Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo and pitching coach Xavier Hernandez, and life in Durham, which isn't awfully far from his home (beats Indianapolis, where he spent three seasons). So it isn't out of the question that he'll return.

Joe Nelson underwrote an insurance run for Gwinnett in the top of the ninth, although it was second baseman Elliot Johnson's throwing error that provided it. Still, Nelson had caused the trouble by giving up a double and a walk with one out. He has now faced 75 batters as a Bull, and 31 have reached via hit, walk or hit batsman. That's a .413 on-base average. Kind of scary, and probably why he was passed over by Tampa Bay for Jeff Bennett. (Also, Bennett can pitch four or five innings if a long reliever is needed; Nelson's a two-inning guy.)

The Bulls had one last chance in the ninth. Reid Brignac singled with one out, which guaranteed, quite fittingly, that Jon Weber would get a final at-bat as a Bull. He was 0-3 with two strikeouts and a walk to that point. It wasn't lost on him, or us, that a two-run homer would tie the score. But Weber uncharacteristically swung at the first pitch and grounded out to end the game and his season as a Bull. I told him afterward that I thought for sure he'd find a way to hit that homer. "So did I, but oh well. La merde passe comme-ca." (Weber's French, which has a barely detectable Perigordeux drawl, is perfect, and I often see him at his locker after games poring over Baudelaire or Montaigne; too bad the Baseball World Cup only takes him to Germany, Holland and Italy.)

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And does he have plans for 2010? Weber (right) immediately expressed a desire to play in Japan. As soon as he brought it up---and he's obviously quite keen to do it---it made perfect sense. A talk I had earlier this season with a Japanese-League scout helps explain why: Weber hits offspeed pitches well, and he'll see more of them over there; he's got enough pop in his bat to interest Japanese teams, who like to have an American bopper or two on their rosters; he plays hard and daily and with honor; and he speaks fluent Japane---nah, you won't fall for that again. "I'm 31 years old," continued Weber, who has two children. "That'd be dumb if I passed up a half-million-dollar [Japanese League] contract. But if it doesn't work out," he added, "I know where home is: I'll be right back here." For Weber's sake (and his family's), I hope he's in the land of the rising sun hitting dozens of doubles, patrolling left field, and knocking back lots of kohada and Asahi. But if he can't latch on over there, we'd all love to have him back. For my money, he was the Bulls' MVP this year---in fact, I just submitted my end-of-season IL All-Star ballot, and I named Weber league MVP.

Of the seven players who left the Bulls, Charlie Montoyo said that "those two [Childers and Weber] are the biggest losses for this team. Weber is our best hitter, and Childers can do anything."

Those summoned to the majors, he told us, were Bennett, Fernando Perez (who earned a golden sombrero with four strikeouts last night), Shawn Riggans and Andy Sonnanstine. It was pointed out to Montoyo that he listed only four players. Who was the fifth? He gave us the gnomic smile he likes to flash when he has intelligence we aren't cleared to receive. "I'm not telling you yet." My guess is either Reid Brignac or Wade Davis. Expect more Tampa-related moves as September passes; Rays manager Joe Maddon apparently called today's promotions "the first salvo." Consider that a direct hit, sir!

Asked whether reinforcements will be mustered in from Montgomery, Montoyo was non-committal and shruggy; he likes to act as though he's always the last guy to be informed of personnel changes, a bit of good-natured and dilatory skulduggery. But one move has already been made, according to Biscuits' beat writer Stacy Long: reliever Paul Phillips was promoted after Montgomery's doubleheader against, coincidentally, the Carolina Mudcats. Phillips has very good numbers with Montgomery. He slots in, perhaps, where Childers was.

So what does this all mean for the Bulls? Jeff Bennett barely pitched for Durham, but he was the temporary fifth starter. Perhaps Heath Rollins, promoted along with Oliveros on Sunday, will take Bennett's spot; or possibly another Biscuit will rise to Durham.

Fernando Perez wasn't expected to stay long on his rehab assignment, and his presence in Durham clogged the roster with five outfielders anyway. But with Weber also gone, there are now only three left---and one of those, Desmond Jennings, is injured. Montoyo said that if Jennings can't go on Tuesday, either Elliot Johnson or Ray Olmedo will play left field; both have seen a bit of playing time there this season.

(Another quick injury note: Chris Richard is still bothered by his sore wrist, and didn't play yesterday. So in addition to the loss of players to Tampa, two are currently, uh, ouch-of-order.)

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By the way: Jennings (left), who was named the Southern League MVP yesterday---congrats!---is nursing a bruised quadriceps. You can bet he won't be cleared to play again until Rays' executives Chaim Bloom, Gerry Hunsicker and Mitch Lukevics, along with Trapper John, M.D., all conduct a personal inspection of said quad and sign off on it with Sharpies.

The loss of Shawn Riggans is circumstantially insignificant, because the Bulls still have two catchers, John Jaso and Michel Hernandez, plus Craig Albernaz ready to step in should another be needed. Andy Sonnanstine's departure was pretty much assured after Scott Kazmir was traded, so although it's no surprise, it means that the Bulls have to fill not just Bennett's place in the starting rotation but also Sonnanstine's---plus Wade Davis's, if he goes up.

The starting rotation looks cratered right now. The Rays will fill the holes, of course, but there's no question that it won't be with players of Davis's and Sonnanstine's caliber. Vague rumors have been flitting around the press box about some brilliant, on-the-QT, you-couldn't-possibly-guess-it plan that will take some of the pain out of the starting-pitching bite---I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that Davis will go up to Tampa, make a start, and come back down---but the best thing to do is wait and see. It's more fun that way, for one thing; and gossip is odorous anyway. One imminent and broad solution: Montgomery won't qualify for the Southern League playoffs, so all of their players are fair game come September 8. The International League playoffs begin, conveniently, on September 9. At this point, the Bulls look extremely likely to be there.

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It wasn't just Desmond Jennings who was honored with an award yesterday. Winston Abreu (left) was named the International League Pitcher of the Week, and for a very good reason: in three appearances, he threw 5 2/3 hitless, scoreless innings, striking out eight batters and walking one. He earned three saves. The league might as well have given him the award the previous week, too, because his numbers were almost identical: five hitless, scoreless innings, eight strikeouts and just one walk, and a save. Abreu has a no-hitter over his last 10 2/3 innings; it's the most dominant stretch of his dominant season. Be glad he's not on Tampa's 40-man roster: the Bulls get to keep him---for now, anyway. You never know when the weather will change again.

Wade Davis is scheduled to start for the Bulls on Tuesday. I'll believe it when I see it. Regardless of who takes the mound in the first inning, it starts at 7:05 at the DBAP. Be there. The Bulls are clinging to a one-game lead over the Braves, who send Jo-Jo Reyes to the mound. Get back, Jo-Jo!

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