by Adam Sobsey
Braves center fielder Jeff Fiorentino hit a three-run home run off of Durham starter Andy Sonnanstine in the fifth inning, and you knew right then that the game was over. The Braves added sacrifice flies in the sixth and the ninth, the latter by Fiorentino to cap a four-RBI night, and the Braves won, 5-0. They took three of four games in the series and moved back into a first-place tie with Durham atop the IL South Division.
In their last eight games since returning to the DBAP, the Bulls have scored only 24 runs, and nine of those came in one game against the sloppy Toledo Mud Hens. In the four games versus Gwinnett, Durham drove in just five runs—two scored on a throwing error by the Braves' Brandon Hicks. The Bulls haven't scored a run in 19 innings.
Baseball is a complicated sport, but it's quite easy to explain the Bulls' sudden drought after a post-All Star Break road trip in which they scored double-digit runs three times in eight games. The reasons are easy as 1-2-3—as in 1-2-3 in the lineup: leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings was called up to the majors, two-man Brandon Guyer got hurt, and then three-spot anchor Felipe Lopez was traded. They took their bats with them.
The players that have stepped into the top part of the lineup have gone 15-56 since last Friday. That isn't terrible, but 12 of those hits have been singles. They have stolen no bases and driven in just two runs. No team can lose its 1-2-3 hitters—who happen to have been the team's best, give or take Russ Canzler—and expect to keep producing. And it isn't the loss of just those three players that has affected the team. The Bulls have had an astounding 44 roster changes in July, setting a new single-month record for the 14-year-old Class AAA franchise. A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson famously warned, but it isn't so bad for a baseball team.
Charlie Montoyo was certainly right, as the salaried manager of whatever 24 Durham Bulls he happens to have under his command on any given day, to bemoan what he called a "non-existent" and "just bad offense." But he knows as well as anyone—and said so—that this is not the team he had a week ago.
Now, to be fair, every team at the Triple-A level goes through changes, constantly, all season. Last night, Gwinnett lost its leadoff man, too, when Jose Constanza was called up to Atlanta to fill in for the injured Nate McLouth. The four-game series against the Bulls saw the Braves also lose, in order, their veteran catcher, J. C. Boscan, outfielder Wilkin Ramirez, reliever Anthony Varvaro and infielder Diory Hernandez. But those cuts aren't as deep as the ones suffered by the Bulls, who, in addition to losing Guyer, Jennings and Lopez, also saw relievers called up to Tampa and sent down almost daily (and when they come back, they need days off to rest from overwork); and overall, Gwinnett has endured fewer than half the roster changes the Bulls have since July 1.
Still, as Montoyo often says, and said again last night, "No excuses." His hitters "didn't make an adjustment" against Braves starter Yohan Flande, whom Montoyo was reluctant to praise. Flande, Montoyo noted, kept throwing his split-finger pitch down and away, down and away, and the Bulls kept swinging meekly at it, even though Montoyo also observed that Flande wasn't setting up the splitter by working inside much: the Bulls helped him be better than he perhaps ought to have been, and their grumbling about plate umpire Mark Lollo's strike zone, both during and after the game, was the sign of a slumping and undisciplined lineup looking to place external blame on an internal problem. Flande walked two batters and went to a grand total of three three-ball counts, two to Reid Brignac. In fact, over a 13-batter stretch spanning 3/13 innings, he didn't go to a single two-ball count. The current Bulls are an impatient bunch of hitters.
If you want to give them a break, note first that the Braves have the league's best pitching. Their team ERA is a sparkling 3.09, nearly half a run better than second-place Pawtucket's, a huge difference. Second, Flande, according to Braves manager Dave Brundage, just started throwing his splitter around the last time he faced the Bulls four weeks ago—a six-inning, seven-strikeout, one-run performance—and the Bulls haven't figured out how to attack it yet. That's largely because the Bulls' top three hitters, the ones who are no longer in the lineup, were also the smartest. Guyer, Jennings and Lopez are as good as they are because they're as smart as they are. They're patient, alert, adaptable and hard to fool. Their replacements in the top third of the lineup have struck out 13 times in their 55 at-bats, and Reid Brignac is the only one who has drawn a walk (in fact he has drawn three). The Bulls have combined to walk only 16 times in the eight games of the homestand so far. Guyer and Dan Johnson have drawn nine of them; so that's 12 of 16 walks spoken for by just three hitters.
The walks are fine and good, but "we need Dan Johnson to hit," Montoyo said, bluntly, of his struggling everyday (and struggling every day) cleanup hitter. In his last 31 at-bats since a 5-6 outburst at Rochester nine days ago, in a game the Bulls won 18-3 against the league's worst pitching staff, Johnson has managed a lone single. I speculated yesterday that Johnson is injured and simply playing through the pain. He tends to be an honest and direct interviewee, and he might own up to an injury if asked; but as long he continues to agree to be in the lineup every day, whatever ailment he might have is—and should be—irrelevant to Montoyo. If you tell your manager you can play, he has the right to expect you to produce. You don't get sympathy for hurting.
And you don't get sympathy for being a newb, either. "We got a lot of new guys," Montoyo said, referring to risen Biscuits Nevin Ashley, John Matulia, Daniel Mayora, John Shelby and Stephen Vogt, only one of whom has any prior experience in Class AAA. (Ashley played in about a dozen games for Durham late last season.) "I don't really know how they are," Montoyo continued. "They need to prove they can play in Triple-A." Asked about his approach to integrating and mentoring the rookies, Montoyo's response was simple: "Play 'em."
Well, what choice does he have? You throw them in the water and watch them sink or swim. The best and brightest thrive, the rest go back to Alabama. If you look at it this way, whatever happens next will be fun: Now's a chance to see if all of these Class AA graduates can learn how to play up here. Over in the Gwinnett clubhouse, there's Tyler Pastornicky, the young shortstop who has wasted no time in getting adjusted, going 7-15 against Durham with a pair of walks and two stolen bases; he's batting .439 since his promotion from Class AA Mississippi less than two weeks ago. There is hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino, who was fun to watch in two appearances in this series as he struck out five Bulls in two innings but also gave up a home run and two singles. When one isn't attached to outcomes, i.e. wins, one can appreciate the players' efforts as they try to ascend the learning curve. That's the main joy of the minor leagues.
It was a curious night for Andy Sonnanstine. Two nights after Matt Moore set a Bulls' season high for innings pitched in a game, going eight frames in a 4-0 win, Sonnanstine matched him. In fact, for four innings, he was better: Sonnanstine was perfect through 3 2/3 until Stefan Gartrell's two-out single in the fourth, throwing strikes down in the zone and changing speeds and location. That's what most pitchers are supposed to do, but if it was as simple as that, they'd do it more often. Sonnanstine didn't walk a batter and threw 70 of 98 pitches for strikes.
He had only two bad innings. Ruben Gotay singled with one out in the fifth inning, and then Sonnanstine got himself into trouble. He fielded Wilkin Castillo's little dribbler up the first base line cleanly, but then tried to throw the ball over Castillo as Castillo ran up the line ahead of him. Castillo is a catcher who isn't very fast. Sonnanstine should have taken a step off the line to get an angle on the throw. Instead, his toss went over the head of both Castillo and first baseman Dan Johnson. Castillo was safe and Gotay advanced to third base.
Four pitches later, Sonnanstine left a pitch up in the strike zone to Fiorentino, who boomed a long three-run homer onto the roof of the right-field picnic area, or party deck, or whatever it's called. 3-0, Braves. Yet another unearned run coughed up by the Durham Bulls. They lead the league in that category. Terrible Norfolk is second. The only consolation is that, last night, it made no difference. "They could have scored one [run] and we wouldn't have won," Montoyo said later.
Will Nieves followed Fiorentino's home run with a well-struck single to center, but Sonnanstine got Matt Young to hit into an inning-ending double play. Pastornicky led off the sixth inning with a double, though, racing to second base when Leslie Anderson was slow to field his not-very-deep liner to left-center field. Stefan Gartrell singled Pastornicky to third base. The next three batters, Mauro Gomez, Brandon Hicks, and Ruben Gotay, each hit the ball about 385 feet. Fortunately for Sonnanstine, all three hit their drives to center field, and John Matulia caught all three of them on the warning track. The first of them, Gomez's, was a sacrifice fly that scored Pastornicky to make it 4-0. Sonnanstine had escaped with just one run allowed in the inning, but he appeared to be running out of bullets despite having thrown just 73 pitches through six innings.
Nonetheless, he came back out for the seventh inning and retired the side in order on 11 pitches, notching two of his three strikeouts. Sonnanstine gave up a leadoff double to Matt Young in the eighth, but he kept Young from scoring—though he needed yet another long out to center field to do it. All told, an eight-inning, four-run start isn't half bad (it's about half good). Obviously it didn't matter at all last night. Sonnanstine was glad to "get innings under my belt," he said, something he needs to do after spending much of 2011 idling in the Tampa Bay Rays' bullpen. He gets credit for that, and would also get credit for keeping the Bulls in the game had the Bulls'hitters [sic] made any kind of game of it last night.
The Bulls conclude this 10-game (?!) homestand, during which they are 4-4 so far, with two games versus the Charlotte Knights. Via another long hop of this harebrained 2011 schedule, we haven't seen the Bulls' closest rival—closest by miles, at least; Charlotte is 52-56, eight games behind Durham in the IL South—since April 22. One of the Knights' relievers that day was Deunte Heath, who has gotten the Freddy Dolsi treatment from the White Sox organization in Triple-A this year and has been converted into a starter, with mixed results—his last two starts have been good, the four before that ugly. (Heath will also be forever remembered in Bulls lore for giving up the winning runs in the craziest game I ever saw at the DBAP.) He starts against the Bulls tonight at 7:05 p.m. against Ryan Reid, filling in for Brian Baker, who is out with arm fatigue until further notice.
On Sunday, the Knights send Joe Bisenius, who beat the Bulls on July 2 at Charlotte, to the mound against the Bulls' Matt Torra, who hasn't faced the Knights. Charlotte's pitching hasn't been very good this year, but the Bulls haven't hit well lately, so it's hard to know what to expect. One thing you can expect is the league's best-hitting team. Charlotte leads the IL in slugging percentage and extra-base hits, and their lineup features four hitters with an OPS of .800 or above. Naturally, the Knights come into tonight's game struggling to score runs, just like the Bulls, with only 26 in their last eight games. It seems that the IL teams from North Carolina have lost their punch lately. That's what happens when you shut out Governor's School, y'all. (GSW '87. I'm ashamed of my state government.)