by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---Another start for Carlos Hernandez, another tail-kicking: He went 4 2/3 innings tonight and allowed ten hits and five runs (four earned) in the Bulls' rain-shortened 8-3 loss to Charlotte. Oddly, he seemed to be throwing harder than he has so far this season, touching 92 once on the scoreboard radar gun. But the result was the same: a lot of his fastballs were punched around by the Knights' batsmen, who swung and missed only six times at Hernandez's 96 pitches.
By contrast, his counterpart, Carlos Torres, got five swings and misses in one twelve-pitch sequence in the fourth inning alone, fanning Justin Ruggiano and Chris Richard around a flyout by Matt Joyce. Torres went five scoreless frames tonight, with an oddly symmetrical look: he gave up two consecutive singles in the first inning, stranded both runners, then kept the Bulls hitless until the fifth, when he gave up two more consecutive singles -- and stranded both runners. All told, he struck out five and walked one in beating the Bulls for the second time in less than a week (he handcuffed them on Wednesday, too, allowing four hits and one run in six innings).
After wiggling through his first two starts, somehow allowing only one run over 9 2/3 innings, Carlos Hernandez has surrendered 14 earned runs in 13 1/3 innings over his last three outings. The peripherals are scary: just nine strikeouts in those starts, with five walks and 24 hits, for an unsightly WHIP of 2.18. And one of the runs today scored with help of two wild pitches. When I went down to the clubhouse to talk to manager Charlie Montoyo, I spotted Hernandez nearby, looking at game film on a small monitor with Bulls' pitching coach Xavier Hernandez. Cover your eyes! I wanted to shout.
I asked Montoyo about something that's been on my mind with regards to the Bulls' hitting problems over the first 25 games of the season -- which aren't quite as bad as they seem, at least in terms of statistics: They're seventh in the league in team OPS, and in the middle of the pack in most major categories, except batting average, where they're near the bottom. The batting average is much worse with runners in scoring position: Only one Bull is hitting over .300 in that situation (Adam Kennedy is 6/16, plus five walks); middle-of-the-order power bats Matt Joyce, Richard, Ruggiano and Ray Sadler are batting a combined .160 with RISP. That's pretty awful, but take heart: RISP average tends to get closer to overall average over time -- there's no such thing as clutch hitting, some modern observers tell us (although that may not be entirely true) -- and the Bulls' clutchness should improve as the season progresses.
What I wanted to know, though, was whether it was hard for players to get into a hitting groove without playing the same position every day -- or playing, period. (Another surprise tonight: infielder Ray Olmedo in left field.) Montoyo knows that he has to move players around in order to satisfy the Rays' philosophy of utility, and so every day brings a different lineup. Are some players struggling because of the inconsistency? Is it easier for them to find their rhythm if they know they'll be playing the same position and batting in the same slot each game?
No, said Montoyo, decisively, adding that Torres might be the best pitcher the Bulls have seen this season. Now it has to be said that he's following the plan, and to acknowledge that the plan might be hurting his hitters would be to question the authority of the very organization that pays him to do his job. So he really had to give me that answer. But Montoyo also explained that what he's trying to do is get these players to the majors, and most of the 2009 Bulls will stick there only by making themselves useful in multiple ways: by playing all three outfield positions, or by playing infield and outfield, and so on.
The logic here isn't only theoretical: The Bulls happen to be loaded with players whose value is in their flexibility -- granted, that is partly by Tampa's design -- and Montoyo is trying to help showcase that value, both for the front office and for opposing teams' scouts. At this point in his career, Elliot Johnson is doing no one any good starting at second base every day; everyone knows what he can and can't do there. He has to be given an opportunity to recast himself as a utility man.
But lest we think that Montoyo's just making it up as he goes along, pulling the lineup out of a hat each day, think again: He showed me the daily chart he keeps of who has played where, whose turn it is for a day off, and so forth. He told me tonight that he was already planning tomorrow's lineup by consulting his chart and keeping other guidelines in mind: For example, none of his players ever sits for more than three straight days; if a southpaw is pitching, the lefthanded-hitting Jon Weber is usually moved out of the leadoff spot and down in the order. And there are other determining factors.
In other words, it's never random; it's the result of careful planning and thought. The law of averages -- especially the law of averages with runners in scoring position -- says that the planning will start paying off soon enough. Unless, of course, Montoyo is wrong, and the players do indeed struggle to get comfortable in this constant shuffle and flux. But it doesn't seem likely that they'd admit that if it were true, because anything like insubordination can get them traded, released, demoted. Meanwhile, the Bulls are 14-10 despite their failure to launch so far -- it could be much worse, especially with Hernandez skidding and David Price still looking for the dominance that has been expected of him.
A few other postgame notes:
I talked briefly with Chris Chambliss, the former outstanding major leaguer and now manager of the Knights. Who knows what he's like at home or in the dugout, but he couldn't have been kinder or more gracious in a postgame interview. He praised Torres to the skies, and when I asked him about the travails and travels of Andy Phillips (well, not really those travails), Chambliss spoke warmly of the first baseman and noted that part of what's keeping him from sticking in the majors is his natural position: Phillips plays first base, where most teams are "looking for huge power." Phillips is more of a contact hitter, though; were he a second baseman, he might have a major-league job.
The game was more or less over by the third inning tonight -- especially in retrospect, because the Bulls lost their last two at bats to the rains that ended the game prematurely -- and the sparse crowd was pretty quiet. (The 2,794 announced attendance had to be an exaggeration.) The closest thing to an uprising came midway through the game, when the vendor who looks like the love child of Fabio and Iggy Pop loudly dropped a whole pallet of funnel cakes -- clang! -- in the grandstand. Titters and mock cheers enveloped the DBAP. Two innings later, he was in his street clothes and watching the game, perched like a yogi on one of the rails behind the field box seats just off of home plate. I wondered if he'd been demoted to Montgomery.
Once again, most of the folks in the press box weren't paying much firsthand attention to the game today, and a long, rambling quizbowl of TV trivia ensued. Name all ten actresses who have played a Charlie's Angel, when was the Andy Griffith Show canceled, etc. I stayed out of it (I don't have a TV), but I did note that it was the second time in this young season that a conversation ended with general agreement that, despite her age, Valerie Bertinelli still looks hot. I'll try to remember to ask them what they think of Kristy McNichol tomorrow afternoon, when the Bulls and Knights tangle again. It's getaway day -- the Bulls leave afterward for a six-game road trip -- so look for a lot of first-pitch-swinging.