by Adam Sobsey
So where does that leave the up-and-down Durham Bulls? After falling behind, 2-0, and then coming back late to grab a 4-2 win over Columbus last night, which made for a split of the four-game series against the International League's best team (by mere percentage points over the Bulls), the superficial and official answer is perhaps TBD. But the keener view—let's call it the Diamond View in honor of the bleacher seats at the DBAP—the Diamond View from within and without reveals that a semblance of order has been restored to the Durham Bulls, at least for now. Up or down? Would you settle for even-keeled?
For that, thank starter Heath Phillips, who tossed 7 2/3 innings of five-hit, two-run baseball, the night after Durham's bullpen was nearly exhausted in a 12-inning, 8-6 loss. The Bulls badly needed Phillips to go deep into the game, and he did. As per usual, his bugbear was the home run ball, a pair of solo shots allowed (including the third of the series to upwardly-mobile Indians prospect Nick Weglarz). But as Phillips told me in Charlotte on Saturday, and then reiterated last night after earning his eighth win of the season, the homers don't bother him if there's no one on base when they happen. He allowed only three other hits (and picked one of them off of first base), worked around three walks, and might have gone eight full innings to match his team-leading season high if not for two fielding misplays, one his own, in the eighth inning.
That brought on R. J. Swindle, the only legitimately rested reliever in the bullpen, who faced five batters and struck out four of them—a single to center field was mixed in there—to earn his second save of the season on a night when there was really no one else to do it. Swindle generated five swinging strikes against those five batters, or as many as Phillips manufactured against 31. He threw only one of his increasingly notorious 50-mph tumbling curveballs last night, and it was taken low and outside. He was terrific last night because he expertly mixed his slider, fastball and changeup (the latter used to devastating effect against Wes Hodges). No pitch exceeded 81 mph. Just for everyone's pre-disembarkation reading (i.e, so you'll know it even if you don't make the jump with me), Swindle now has 39 strikeouts and four walks in 37 1/3 innings pitched.
Thank also the Bulls' hitters, who did something they've not done much of since the All-Star break ended: drive in runners in scoring position. Early in the game, Bulls' broadcaster Neil Solondz related to me this bizarre fact: since the resumption of play, Durham entered last night's game having gotten seven hits with RISP against the unfortunate Jeremy Sowers on Tuesday night, and seven more hits with RISP against everyone else. The difference is that they got those seven hits off of Sowers in 12 at-bats (.583 batting average), the seven others in 57 (.123!).
But last night, Jose Lobaton and Dan Johnson had big hits with men on second and third. Lobaton's sixth-inning single tied the game, 2-2, and Johnson's seventh-inning double won it. It was an unusually crisp, precisely-played game in a season that has seen the Bulls plod through a lot of punishing blowouts and a clutch of slovenly losses. It's perhaps obvious to say this, given that Durham has been cruising toward the post-season all year, but last night's game made them look like a playoff team.
A closer look, but not a long one—call it an in-and-out—after the jump.
Remember that little stat about R. J. Swindle I just forced on you before the jump? That one about walks vs. strikeouts? It's amazing how often, and how undeniably, the difference-maker in a game of baseball is walks. It is the great spoiler, the monkey wrench, the ant at the picnic. It is the waster and the waste. Stay away from them, and good things almost always happen; allow them, and all you can do is hope for the best. Especially leadoff walks. It wasn't just Swindle who demonstrated great control last night. Phillips actually walked three batters, but two of those came with two outs, and the other with one out. "I don't like walking guys," Phillips summed up, and it was noteworthy that he wasn't especially bothered by the home runs, relative to the walks he allowed. To some degree, homers are the penalty for throwing a lot of strikes (especially if you don't throw them very hard; Phillips is an upper-80s guy). "If I lead the league [in home runs allowed], I don't have a problem with it," he declared. "I hate giving them up, but that's baseball; it's gonna happen."
That's a reminder that the word "control," in baseball, has a secondary connotation. It basically means throwing strikes—or at least throwing pitches where you want them to go. But it also suggests a larger truth about what the pitcher can control. He doesn't really have much influence on where the ball goes when it's hit. Sure, it's hard to pull a pitch on the outside corner, but it can still be hit a long way, even over the wall. Walks, though—walks are, at least in theory, completely in the hands of the pitcher. If he throws strikes, they don't happen. If they don't happen, fewer baserunners. And so on. What's refreshing about Phillips, a straight-shooting, unassuming, easy-to-talk-to big lug who (I was told) enjoys hunting, is that he doesn't nibble around the plate. He throws his strikes, tries to move them around and change their speed, and leaves it to the batter to deal with them. It's like hunting: You see the target, you shoot at it. You're not trying to scare the deer, or outsmart the deer; you want venison. With maybe a blackberry-juniper glaze and a Cote Rotie. But enough of that.
How many Bulls who walked last night later scored? Two. How many runs did the Bulls win by? Two.
And it didn't come easy. Clippers starter Josh Tomlin, who pitched for Montoyo's All-Star team last week, had shut out the Bulls for six innings up in Columbus in May. A 19th-round draft pick of the Indians in 2006, Tomlin has suddenly emerged as the best Class AAA starter they have. And last night, he reached new heights, striking out 10 Bulls in six innings of work (the Bulls fanned 13 times overall)—he had just two Ks in his previous start against them, and no more than six in any game this year before last night. Tomlin moved his pitches around, touching 92 on the radar gun and working in a taut, snapping curveball for swinging strikes, along with what appeared to be a sinker but is apparently a splitter (not thrown much anymore). An especial oddity: of the 18 outs the Bulls made against Tomlin, 15 of the chances were handled by no one but the pitcher (the strikeouts and three assists on grounders), the catcher (all the strikeouts) and the first baseman (five putouts at first base), who also chipped an error on a grounder.
But the Bulls, down 2-0 on those two solo home runs off of Phillips, broke back against Tomlin in his final inning, and they made sure the sixth was Tomlin's last by ha ving forced him to labor through some long at-bats back in the third, when he used up 29 pitches, including 14 of them on (you guessed it) two walks—and that's another reason pitchers need to avoid them to be successful: they'll end your night early. Dan Johnson struck out to lead off the sixth, and then Chris Richard walked.
And here the Bulls were lucky. Desmond Jennings, scheduled for a night off, pinch hit for Angel Chavez. Chavez had looked uncomfortable during his first at-bat, rolling his shoulder around between pitches. In the bottom of that inning, he made a fine half-dive to spear Eziquiel Carrera's grounder to third base. Apparently that aggravated the problem. After attempting to bunt for a hit in the fourth (in retrospect, that perplexing choice could have been less tactical than simply a shoulder-protecting gambit), he gave way to Jennings with Richard on first base. It was unfortunate that an injury caused him to leave the game ("it wasn't because I was smart enough to make a move," Montoyo joked)—and it happened on his birthday, no less—but it worked out perfectly: Jennings smacked the second pitch he saw over the site of Chavez's earlier dive—the third base bag—for a double. That moved Richard to third, and Jose Lobaton followed with a sharp single to right-center field to score both runners and tie the game.
Tomlin departed after the inning, and the man who replaced him, Shane Lindsay, was making his first appearance for Columbus. Lindsay, from Melbourne, Australia, has already been waived twice this year, once by Colorado and once by the New York Yankees. He threw pretty hard, up around 95 mph, but struggled with his control (it has been a huge problem throughout his career). He walked Fernando Perez to lead off the inning and, after J. J. Furmaniak grounded into a forceout, walked Elliot Johnson. (Neither Perez nor Johnson is a very selective hitter.) After Justin Ruggiano struck out for the third time (on an unhittable high fastball), Dan Johnson delivered the decisive blow, a line drive into right-centerfield that hit the grass and eluded the speedy outfielders, rolling to the wall for a two-run double.
Enlightened statistics folks will tell you that RBIs are a rather meaningless figure: to get them, a hitter has to rely on other players to get on base ahead of him, so RBIs say more about a player's teammates than they do about his own skills. True as far as it goes, until you look at Dan Johnson's league-leading total. The tenth-place man in the RBI category has 53, and the second-place holder has 62: that's an unsurprisingly small degree of difference between the top RBI guys, just nine total.
Johnson leads the International League with 85 RBIs.
If the season ended today, Johnson would miss winning the Triple Crown by a grand total of four singles. Just saying.
* A worrying injury note: The sixth inning ended last night with a grim double play. Designated hitter Alvin Colina hit a softish grounder to third base, which Jared Goedert fielded and fired to second base. Luis Valbuena made a nice jumping catch-and-throw, all in midair, but Colina, slow but hustling all the way, beat Valbuena's relay, which was off-target and got past first baseman Jordan Brown. Colina crossed the bag and then tried to make the turn and go to second. As he did so, he went down in a heap and stayed there, prone. The errant throw was retrieved, and Brown tagged Colina out to complete the double play and add insult to injury. Colina didn't rise for several minutes, and had to be helped off by two trainers, unable to put any weight at all on his right leg. After the game, he sat morosely at his locker. I asked him what he thought the injury was, but all he knew for sure was that "something popped." That could be a pretty serious ankle (or perhaps knee) injury. Although it would be convenient for Colina to miss time—the Bulls have three catchers, which is one too many, on the roster—you never want to see an injury like that. We wish him well, and a speedy recovery.
* Joe Dillon has missed three games with some flu-ish illness. Charlie Montoyo expects him to play on Friday. Look for a night off for Angel Chavez, as he tries to rest his sore shoulder. Chavez is not expected to go on the disabled list.
* J. J. Furmaniak is a lifetime .264 hitter in 3700 minor-league at-bats. It was a pleasant surprise to see him hitting .320 at the All-Star break, adding unexpected punch to the lineup, where he often batted near the top. Since then, though, he is 3-27 (.111) with seven strikeouts and zero walks. He is probably just regressing to the mean, as they say—it's not often that a guy hits 60 points above his lifetime average for an entire season—but his slump has been hurtful to the team's run production, especially when he hits in the leadoff spot. Furmaniak seems especially vulnerable to high, hard fastballs.
* I happened to slip into the Bulls' 8-6, 12-inning loss on Wednesday in the 11th inning, after watching a revival of the great George Stevens classic Giant (James Dean's final movie before his death) at the Carolina Theatre downtown. The film is 3:21 in duration, but the Bulls and Clippers were still going at it a few blocks away. Winston Abreu came in to pitch the 12th inning for the Bulls, and it was a shock to see him fare so poorly after dominating Columbus to close out the previous night's win—he struck out the side in the ninth inning. But he had almost nothing on Wednesday. His sliders were so flat and mushy that, sitting behind the Columbus dugout, I confused them for slow fastballs (they clocked in at around 86 mph); so did the Clippers, who tagged them for some long fly balls, one of which just missed being a three-run homer and was ruled a two-run double instead (it hit up near the top of the Blue Monster, where a fan may have interfered with it). Abreu hadn't allowed a run in about two months until yesterday, and I, along with plenty of other folks, had probably just started assuming that he was untouchable. But Wednesday's collapse was a reminder that Abreu is a) 33 years old and is in his 17th professional season; and b) coming off surgery for an aneurysm. He simply doesn't have the strength to pitch effectively on consecutive nights. If he doesn't regain that strength, the Bulls could have trouble in the playoffs.
* Justin Ruggiano has struck out seven times in his last 18 plate appearances. He has now fanned 87 times in 328 trips overall, a rate very close to last year's (27% to 28%). He's got to improve that part of his game. Almost everything else—power, speed, excellent range in the outfield (if not always the best reaction to ball hit in the air)—is close to where it needs to be. Remember that Ruggiano turned many heads with his spectacular Spring Training performance (he batted an unbelievable .460), and that three weeks into the season he was batting .349 with a 1.016 OPS, and 20 strikeouts in 94 appearances, a lower rate for him. In other words, he is capable of performing at a higher level. After last night's three-strikeout 0-4 showing, his batting average dipped below .280 for the first time since April 16. Has he simply reacquired some bad habits (he still has trouble with breaking balls away), or are there still some lingering issues with the bicep muscle he strained back in early June?
* Hey, baseball fans: I've got a piece over in the current edition of the Indy about a new book called Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s. If you're hankering for a trip down memory lane, or just to revisit Dock Ellis's legendary LSD-fueled no-hitter, have at it. Turns out that Ellis did something else more interesting and surreal, really, than pitch while tripping: trying to rejuvenate his struggling Pittsburgh Pirates in 1974, he went out to the mound in the first inning of a game and deliberately tried to hit every Cincinnati Red he faced (Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, etc.) before manager Danny Murtaugh had mercy and got him out of the game. Ahh, baseball in the 1970s. Miss it? Yeah, me neither.
* Brian Baker, the utility pitcher for this year's Bulls squad, will start in place of the injured Carlos Hernandez tonight against Syracuse, which comes in for its annual four-game series in Durham. (One of the wilder games at the DBAP in 2009 was against the Chiefs.) In his last spot start, when he replaced Jeremy Hellickson so that Hellickson could go to Anaheim for the Futures Game, Baker went four innings at Norfolk. He allowed one run on five hits, but needed 80 pitches to get through those four innings and taxed the bullpen. Baker has been significantly better at home (2.04 ERA) than on the road (3.38) this year. His opponent tonight will be the Chiefs' Matt Chico, who held the Bulls scoreless on three hits in 5 1/3 innings on June 4 in Syracuse. Chico walked five Bulls in that game (oh, those bases on balls again), but perhaps that figure should be taken with a grain of salt (or a shot of whiskey): umpire David Rackley presided over an incredible 21 walks that day, including five for Jeremy Hellickson in his six innings on the mound. No matter who's calling the balls and strikes tonight, and no matter who's throwing them, I'll see you at the DBAP at 7:05 PM.