by Adam Sobsey
Individually, the Bulls kept saying that their fatigue wasn't an issue, but the telling thing about that claim is that they kept owning up to the fatigue. One of the players mentioned that the Clippers had to take the same bus rides that the Bulls did, but that wasn't actually true: The Bulls had to take more of them. That is no excuse, of course. The Clippers played better and, sorry to say, looked like they wanted it more. Their team was stocked with high draft picks, many from good college programs, most under 27 years old, who really wanted the trophy. The Bulls, by contrast, looked like they would have been very, very happy to have it, but not more greedy than that—sort of how most Spaniards would have been pretty pleased to learn that their country had discovered a New World, but it was only Columbus and his crew who took the hard voyage all the way there. Sure, he thought he was in Indonesia or something, but he knew he was after some kind of major treasure. So did the Clippers, and they wouldn't be denied it.
After the jump are a few notes—decorous ones, let's say, in the face of the gory, gored-Bull outcome—on the game itself, and slightly longer thoughts on the season that was and the one that is to come.
The Clippers scored their first run eight pitches into last night's game, then added three more in the second and another in the fourth, by which time they'd chased two Bulls pitchers from the game (Paul Phillips and Dale Thayer). Ten of the first 21 Columbus batters reached base.
Surprisingly, though, it was still a game with significant drama in the bottom of the fourth inning. The Bulls had punched back early against Columbus' 23-year-old starter, Paolo Espino—pitching to his cousin, Damaso Espino, who was behind the plate catching. From the second through the fourth innings, the Bulls got seven hits and a pair of walks off of him. They scored a run in the third inning and another in the fourth; and with two outs in that inning, still trailing 5-2, Elliot Johnson's walk loaded the bases for Justin Ruggiano. A grand slam, as everyone watching knew, would give the Bulls the lead.
But Ruggiano grounded out to shortstop, ending the fourth, and the Clippers scored twice more in the fifth inning off of Mike Ekstrom (who had pitched three relief innings two nights earlier) to extend their lead to 7-2. In the sixth, they shellacked Darin Downs for four more runs on three doubles and a triple, and the rout was on. The Bulls had only one baserunner over the last three innings, and the final eight Durham hitters were retired in order, most on meek groundouts. The Clippers' infielders also made some fine plays to prevent hits.
After the game, Charlie Montoyo and his players praised Columbus, of course; but more than that, they displayed something I hadn't really heard from the Bulls this season—a mild wonder at how many good players the Clippers seemed to have. Example: Their ninth-place hitter was the 57th overall selection in the draft several years ago, a highly regarded prospect. Two Durham pitchers—younger ones, admittedly, who have never been to the majors—told me that Columbus was the best-hitting team they've ever faced; the Clippers out-homered the big bad Bulls 9-1 in four games. One of those pitchers even went on to praise the Clippers' pitching staff, too. It was the first time this year that the Bulls expressed anything like non-alpha sentiment about another team—generally, they simply pounded the opponent whoever it was, thereby issuing a de facto (low) opinion.
One thing is sure: Columbus, an up-and-down team with up-and-down players this season, came together at precisely the right moment. They did everything about as well as it can be done at the Triple-A level, and they deserved to win. The Bulls, on the other hand, already tiring by the regular season's end, seemed to play themselves out in rallying to beat Louisville in the first round of the playoffs. They had little left to give.
Charlie Montoyo, disappointed though he was, had no regrets and was rightly proud of the season his team had. Durham won 92 out of 152 games, a wonderful .605 winning percentage. They were, for much of the year, miles better than any other team in the International League, and their players racked up copious individual awards. They were, in fact, so good, that their best players were, naturally, gone by the time the post-season began. That's true of the Columbus Clippers' studs, too, of course, but the Clippers didn't have anyone near as good as Dan Johnson or Jeremy Hellickson. And although they lost Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin from their rotation, after mid-season they acquired via trades pitchers Zach McAllister, who despite having a poor season was a top-ten prospect, and the impressive young right-hander Corey Kluber, whom the Bulls would have had to face in Game Five. The Indians also promoted to the Clippers the Game Four starter, Espino, from Double-A.
The Bulls, on the other hand, finished 2010 with a starting rotation that probably wouldn't have won even 72 games over a full season, let alone 92. The glass slipper finally broke last night for career reliever Paul Phillips, who had waltzed up to Durham from Double-A two Septembers in a row and looked like he could beat any team whenever he chose to. Last night, though, he was quickly shelled, and out of the game after just 1 1/3 innings. No Durham starter pitched more than five innings in the series, and only one (Aneury Rodriguez) got even that far: the four of them logged a total of just 12 1/3 of the Clippers' 34 innings of hitting, surrendering 13 runs. The Clippers' foursome, on the other hand, threw 28 of 36 total innings, and allowed only five runs: As predicted, starting pitching was the difference in the series, magnified by the lopsided scores in the first ad last games. The Bulls were finally bitten by the many, many injuries that sidelined their starters.
Still, it isn't at all sure that Brian Baker, Jason Cromer, Carlos Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, Heath Phillips or Virgil Vasquez—to say nothing of Jeremy Hellickson—would have made a difference against the Clippers, whose hitters were locked in, to say the least, and whose erratic starters seemed finally to have hit their strides in the late-going. Although minor-league rosters change with the rise and fall of the sun, you can't keep patching holes indefinitely. The Clippers were shipshape; the Bulls were wounded and full of holes. Their proud, proud season ended in blood—they were worn down by small wounds and fatigue: a season-long faena that made them vulnerable, finally, to a spry and confident young matador.
The highlights of the year? Watching Dan Johnson's sustained run of record-threatening excellence surely had to be near the top, if not the top—and he added color to his performance with his candid postgame interviews. Richard De Los Santos emerged from nowhere and put together a remarkable run of starts until his arm finally tired out in late August, and he was a gracious and amiable clubhouse presence. Winston Abreu, the quiet closer—until he reaches the mound, where his flamboyance emerges like a diva's—put together another fabulous season, setting a career high for saves at age 33, and following offseason surgery for an aneurysm in his pitching shoulder. His main setup man, the very cool customer Joe Bateman, locked down a lot of games for the Bulls this season.
Chris Richard, at 36 years of age well into what should be the fading years of his career, had one of his finest seasons. His OPS was second in the league to Dan Johnson's, he belted 20 homers, played excellent first base, and showed how an older hitter can maintain his skills with hard work, intelligent at-bats and impeccable conditioning habits. Who knows if he will be back next year? The Rays have waiting in the wings not only Leslie Anderson but also another Cuban first baseman, Jose Julio Ruiz—in both of whom they have invested a lot of money. Both will be bidding for big-league jobs in 2011, and both could begin the year in Durham. that could squeeze Richard out of Durham (even though he lives here in the off-season). Perhaps the Rays would like to bring Richard back as a designated hitter and part-time first baseman—certainly they love his good-natured leadership and equipoise—but economics will ultimately dictate that decision, not, unfortunately, character, nor even Richard's superb 2010.
Elliot Johnson, maybe the Bulls' most hard-nosed player, finally yoked his tenacity to better plate judgment and maturer, more purposeful at-bats. He showed huge improvement, played very well in both the infield and the outfield, and earned All-Star honors at both mid-season and the end of the year. Were he not blocked in the majors by four middle infielders in Tampa, he'd have surely gotten a callup. Johnson will be a free agent, and plans to go play in Mexico this winter with the Mazatlan Deer, where he'll be reunited with former Bull Jon Weber. I'm betting that the Rays let Johnson go to another team—or he opts for a change of employer—and here's hoping that he not only gets the major-league opportunity he earned this year, but makes good on it. Don't forget that, although Johnson, like Chris Richard, has been a Bull for four seasons, he is still just 26 years old, just entering his prime.
Thinking about those two longtime Bulls calls to mind another one, of course. Justin Ruggiano has been perhaps the most frustrating Bull to watch over the last two years. Strong, fast and talented, at his best he's what they call a five-tool player. After a difficult 2009, perhaps distracted by the mid-season birth of his first child and surely affected by off-season eye surgery, he came into 2010 having worked on his swing over the winter with a couple of highly regarded hitting coaches, Jaime Cevallos and Ronnie Ortegon. Ruggiano had a tremendous Spring Training, and was hitting .330 as a Bull in early May when he injured his biceps. He missed two weeks, slumped when he returned, and then leveled off around .280 for most of the rest of the season. His power numbers were only decent, and he continued to strike out at an alarming rate, finishing with the sixth most in the league. Ruggiano is on the Rays' 40-man roster, but he is almost sure to be outrighted to the minors after the season is over. What happens from there is anyone's guess, but Ruggiano seems like a player who might benefit from a change of scenery at this point; perhaps there's an organization out there with a hitting coach who can better respond to Ruggiano's needs. That's no knock on Dave Myers, the Bulls' hitting coach; it's just that different players fit better with different mentors. Say this for Ruggiano: He's not going to be loafing around this winter. He told me after the game that in just a couple of weeks he'll head down to Mexico to start working with Ortegon again.
Speaking of coaches, Bulls' pitching coach Xavier Hernandez will be leaving to take a job as Assistant Coach in the Houston Baptist University baseball program. This is largely to be closer to his Texas-based family. Hernandez has stayed out of the media spotlight, so I can't tell you much about him or the work he did here; but it's clear that his departure will have a significant effect on the team, not just in baseball terms but in personal ones, as well. The first words out of Charlie Montoyo's mouth when we walked into his office last night weren't about the season-ending loss. "I'm glad you guys came in before my pitching coach left," he said of the man who has held that position for Montoyo for six years. "You'd see me crying."
But of course there's no crying in baseball, and with regard to the rest of the Bulls' veterans—the ones who aren't under team control but were brought in as free agents to shore up the roster—they are basically disposable parts: Players like Angel Chavez, Joe Dillon, J. J. Furmaniak, Chris Richard and R. J. Swindle, productive as they were this year, can be replaced. Dillon is 35 years old, coming off what he called his worst season, and sounded unsure after the game whether he wanted to keep playing. Furmaniak, who had a terrific post-season, said he'd love to be back. Swindle's gimmicky sidearm stuff could entertain us again—he threw another 48-mph curveball last night, drawing the usual oohs and aahs and titters from the crowd—but Swindle, of course, would like to go somewhere that gives him a chance to make the majors; the Rays don't seem to have him in their big-league plans. There's no telling what will become of these players. That's the nature of the game.
We got a taste of prospects to come, too. Leslie Anderson was fun to watch, and hit hard line drives to all fields. He may very well begin 2011 in Durham, even if the Rays' incumbent first baseman, Carlos Pena, a free agent, doesn't return to Tampa Bay. If Jake McGee, just called up to the majors this week, doesn't stick next season, we'll get to see more of his development, too. And the playoffs gave us a first look at young right-hander Alex Cobb, after Hellickson the Rays' minor-league starter closest to big-league ready. Expect a whole season of Cobb in Durham in 2011, along with his Montgomery stablemate Alexander Torres, a promising young left-handed starter. And in the rear-view mirror is Matt Moore, who dominated the Class-A Florida State League so completely—he struck out over 200 batters to lead all the minor leagues—that he may rise up to Durham right quick.
The Tampa Bay pipeline is flowing with high-grade (but still crude) talent; Bulls fans are lucky beneficiaries of all the success that talent brings the club year in and year out. Even if most of the crowd at the ballpark doesn't care at all what or whom they're watching on the field, other than the sumo-wrestlers between innings, the fact is that good baseball makes for more fun at the ballpark, no matter why you're there: Make no mistake, those funnel cakes taste better, and Wool E. Bull is more woolE, because of Jeremy Hellickson and Dan Johnson and Desmond Jennings and all the rest.
And what about Charlie Montoyo, who has taken all four of his Durham teams to the post-season since coming up from Montgomery in 2007? Would he like to be back? "Yes," he responded immediately, then added: "Unless somebody wants to give me a chance in the big leagues." (That was a reminder that it isn't only players who have higher aspirations.) "But this is a good place to be," Montoyo said. "I love it here. The worst thing that could happen is somebody gives me a [major-league job]"—worst thing, of course, for his future in Durham, he meant—"but otherwise I want to be here." Although Montoyo likes developing players, he was quick to qualify his dedication to that task. "It's also a job," he said. "It provides for my family." Everyone in the clubhouse, from the hardworking attendants to the millionaire Cuban, is in baseball not only for the fans, for the trophies, for the fun, for the fame, but for the paycheck. There are people depending on them for much more than base hits and lineup cards.
Feeling blue-and-orange that the Bulls' season is over? Well, in a way, it isn't: It's time now to turn your attention to the Tampa Bay Rays, who are charging toward the playoffs themselves and currently sporting a whopping 21 players that have played for Durham in just the last five seasons. If you've been following the Bulls for a while, you can keep up with not only recent players like Reid Brignac and John Jaso and Dan Johnson but also older greats like Carl Crawford (who may not be much longer for Tampa) and B. J. Upton. Remember, always, that the DBAP is a middle passage, a place of work and training and proofing and honing and refining. These rough-edged players we watched here yesterday are now showing their polish and professionalism in the major leagues—and they're still showing their rough edges, too. I like to think that, wherever they are, they have a little bit of Durham in them—and just the right amount of Bull.
Congratulations to the Bulls on a great season, and here's wishing them another one in 2011. Thanks for keeping up with them this year on Triangle Offense, and have a great fall and winter.