[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="400" caption="Jeremy Hellickson, pitching recently for the Montgomery Biscuits"][/caption]DBAP/ DURHAM---First things first: great to be back at the ballpark! When I walked into the DBAP last night, I suddenly felt like I hadn't been there in months. It had actually been three weeks, but the feeling I had was evidence of the dailiness of the baseball season. You play almost every single day for five months in class AAA, and three weeks off seems like a really long time. Not only had I been gone that long, but the Bulls themselves hadn't played a game at the DBAP in two weeks.
And so, if last night's game was rather like the beginning of a new season, it seemed appropriate that it was started by a new pitcher. Jeremy Hellickson was called up from Double-A Montgomery, where he had been something close to dominant in 11 starts. (He missed seven weeks with a shoulder strain.) The 22-year-old Iowan was quite good, picking up the win with six innings of two-run ball. Three innings of shutout relief by John Meloan and Jason Childers, who earned his first save, and home runs by Justin Ruggiano and Chris Richard, supported Hellickson. All in all, it was an old-fashioned, best-of-times sort of game, and the 4-2 win over Norfolk pushed the Bulls back into first place, half a game up on the Tides. Gwinnett beat Lehigh Valley to remain a game back.
The fun part of the standings-switcheroo was when Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo, asked after the game how it felt to get the division lead back, replied, "We did?" He's so focused on each game, and on developing his players, that the aerial view little interests him. The extent of his schedule-awareness is that the Bulls have four more games in the next three days against Norfolk; the rest is for fans and journalists to worry about.
More on Hellickson's performance, and a few notes, after the jump.
Hellickson is billed as a fastball/changeup/curveball guy, and it was the second of those pitches that bewildered the Norfolk Tides early. Although Hellickson's fastball looked good, with nice zip and life at 91-92 mph, the changeup made it look that much better. He produced a couple of foolish swings-and-misses with the latter in the first inning, and dropped in a curveball at one point as a show-me pitch (he threw just a handful all night).
The changeup was tremendously effective in the early going---it helped Hellickson produce five of his six strikeouts in the first three innings and most of his swings-and-misses in the first four (14 overall). One reason the changeup was so effective is that his is an unusual version of the pitch. It nearly always comes in at 79 mph---a wide separation in velocity from his heater---but it doesn't break like most changeups. Rather than fading down and out, it has a late, spinning break away. It's a bit like a slow slider. Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo was so impressed by it that when he was asked initially about Hellickson's fastball, he responded by praising the changeup.
But as Hellickson acknowledged, he got too enamored of it and started to over-rely on the pitch. The second time through the order, Hellickson was using his fastball mainly as a show-me pitch, leaning too hard on the changeup. The Tides solved him. The first time through the lineup, they were 0-8 with a walk; but six of the next 11 hitters reached, with a double, three singles, two walks and zero strikeouts, scoring single runs in the fourth and fifth innings. It might have been worse had Tides' center fielder Jeff Fiorentino (one of the league's best hitters) not mistimed a pair of Hellickson's pitches by about two nanoseconds each, hitting a couple of screaming fouls and just missing a home run, before he hit a sacrifice fly; and had Reid Brignac not positioned himself perfectly for Michael Aubrey's grounder up the middle, Aubrey's 6-3 groundout could have instead gone for another single.
It was around that time that pitching coach Xavier Hernandez made a visit to the mound. Later we learned that the topic was simple: throw more fastballs; throw fewer changeups. More fastballs were then thrown, although Hellickson lost a couple of miles per hour on them: they were closer to 89-90 in the fifth and sixth. In his final inning, Hellickson got into another jam with help from an Elliot Johnson error at third base (Brandon Snyder's grounder hit the lip of the infield grass, took a bad hop, and ate Johnson up; it could have easily been scored a hit), but he recovered with a big strikeout of Robby Hammock (that's Hammock swinging, if you're scoring at home) and then got Brandon Pinckney to ground to second to end the inning and Hellickson's night. He threw 102 pitches, 70 for strikes.
And this was no doubleheader-emergency outing, either, as I speculated it might have been. Montoyo told us after the game that Hellickson is to remain a Bull and in the starting rotation, and to that end Matt DeSalvo has been relegated to the bullpen. The move makes plenty of sense, given that DeSalvo, who is nearly 30, is no longer a prospect and hasn't pitched well for the Bulls, especially in July. His days in Durham may be numbered.
I asked Justin Ruggiano about his ICBM of a homer in the first inning off of Jake Arrieta, and Ruggiano reminded me that Arrieta is the pitcher who hit Ruggiano on the hand with a fastball on July 12, knocking him out of the game with a bruise that could easily have been a very bad break with some bad luck. According to Ruggiano, Arrieta wasn't trying to hit him; he was just trying to pitch inside. But it was clear that Ruggiano, like any self-respecting power hitter, took a bit of umbrage at Arrieta's overly aggressive (and poorly aimed) marking of the inner part of the plate. When a pitcher keeps pushing hitters back so far that he hits them, hitters really want to push back. Plus, Bulls broadcaster Neil Solondz had noted a bit of a swagger to Arrieta's mound presence when he called the July 12 game. "I really wanted to get that guy," Ruggiano said. Get him he did: his blast went way over the Bull atop the Blue Monster and out into the night. "He deserved it," Ruggiano concluded.
It's easy to forget that ballplayers, despite the blurry quantity of at-bats they have every season, quite often know exactly who it is they're facing and the accompanying history involved. Their competitiveness is fueled not just by the pursuit of individual accomplishment but also by wanting to beat certain guys---like guys who hit you on the hand with blazing two-strike fastballs. Perhaps that same motivation had something to do with Arrieta's third inning, although his retributive attempt backfired on him. With runners on first and second and no one out, he got Ruggiano to ground into a double play. But Arrieta's control then abruptly deserted him, almost as if he was so fixated on evening the personal score with Ruggiano that he expended his concentration doing it. He walked the next three hitters, forcing home the Bulls' third run. By the end of the inning, he had thrown 30 pitches, and he was done after four.
That third-inning sequence eerily mimicked the one a couple of weeks ago, when Arrieta fell apart after hitting Ruggiano.
Two very hard-throwing relievers followed Arrieta, the giraffe-like Kam Mickolio (96mph fastball) and Dennis Sarfate (94mph). Both are right-handers with big-league experience: the up-and-down, 6-foot-9 Mickolio was just demoted again to the minors, and Sarfate is on a rehab assignment; he made 57 appearances for Baltimore last year. No surprise, then, that the K-prone Bulls whiffed 10 more times last night, four of them against Mickolio alone (I'm assuming that his parents had a career as a reliever in mind for him when they named him Kameron Kraig Mickolio). But the Bulls also, you know, won the game, adding an insurance run when Chris Richard blasted an opposite-field dinger over the Blue Monster in the eighth off of Bob McCrory, whom the Bulls touched up for three hits and two runs when he relieved Arrieta in the Ruggiano-HBP game about two weeks ago.
Strong relief work by John Meloan and Jason Childers last night. Childers recorded a four-pitch save, starting a 1-6-3 double play to finish off the game. Meloan walked two men in his two innings, which is slightly worrisome---that's seven for him now in 10 1/3 overall---but he also struck out two Tides. And he got help in the eighth from Ruggiano, who made a spectacular, diving, full-extension, full arm-extension catch of Brandon Snyder's fading looper in shallow center field. "I haven't seen the replay yet," Ruggiano said. "You'll like it," I told him. He gets a loud Roodge call for his game last night.
Meloan, by the way, took his warmup tosses to strains of the theme song from Cheers, a nod to Sam "Mayday" Malone. I was disturbed by the suggestion that Meloan (who pronounces it like "Malone") would choose fraternity with Ted Danson's retired relief pitcher: Sam was called "Mayday" because that's usually the signal his manager was sending by the time Sam was done manufacturing a disaster whenever he pitched. Fortunately, Matt DeMargel told me that he himself had selected the song---he'd always hoped that the Bulls would get a Malone (or Meloan) on the roster so he could use it---and that only a couple of players on the team even recognized the joke. That they were both catchers only makes it funnier.
Jason Cromer was officially assigned to Hudson Valley so that Hellickson could make Friday's start. (Hellickson isn't even on the Bulls' online roster list yet.) But the Bulls no longer bother to observe the formality of having the "reassigned" player cover his uniform with a sweatshirt: there was Cromer last night in his No. 45, leaning on the dugout railing with his teammates for most of the ballgame. His turn in the rotation is Sunday. I suspect he'll be conveniently added back onto the Durham roster in time for that, unless the Rays make another move or a trade.
Twinbill tomorrow. Let's play two! See you at 1:05 p.m. That's only 12 hours from now. I'd better get to bed.