DBAP/ DURHAM—The fifth inning is a little too early to start getting excited about a perfect game, but you can't be faulted for noticing it, like a fetus in a sonogram; still, it's a long way from that blob on the screen to President of the United States.
Louisville Bats starter Homer Bailey retired the first 11 Bulls he faced tonight with ease, needing just 40 pitches to take them all down. The 12th, Justin Ruggiano, launched a rocket to center field that turned into another out when the Bats' Drew Stubbs caught up to it on the warning track, nearly 400 feet from home plate. Bailey was perfect through four.
Matt Joyce led off the next inning and popped one up to medium left field, right down the line. The Bats' left fielder, former Bull Jonny Gomes, appeared to lose the ball in the lights—Jon Weber suffered the same problem once tonight, it seemed—and Joyce's flare landed just fair for a leadoff double. Bailey retired the next three hitters, and you couldn't help wondering, what if that's the only hit the Bulls get tonight?
Chris Nowak led off the sixth with a sharp single to left, and I felt somewhat relieved that Bailey hadn't lost his hitless game to a fluke. Ray Olmedo followed with another single, and suddenly the profile of Bailey's evening went from near-perfect to lead-in-jeopardy. (The Bats had touched up Bulls' starter Wade Davis for three runs in the fourth inning.)
Apropos of nothing, I was thinking during Weber's first at-bat of the night, in which he struck out swinging, that his primary problem is that he doesn't have enough power for a corner outfielder. His collection of 13 homers last year wasn't quite large enough to impress the Tampa front office, and he doesn't have the base-stealing speed to compensate for his limited slugging. So it made sense to me that he squared to bunt at Bailey's first pitch. He took it high for a ball. Nowak, who was on second base, had drifted toward third in anticipation of Weber's sacrifice, and Louisville catcher Craig Tatum leaped out of his squat and fired the ball to second base. Nowak appeared to dive in under the tag by shortstop Luis Bolivar, but he was called out.
Getting picked off is embarrassing, especially getting picked off of second base, which is much farther from home plate than first and third. Bailey looked encouraged by Nowak's gaffe, took the ball back, calmly reared back and threw a 93-mph fastball, and Jon Weber—the sacrifice bunt called off with one out now and a runner on first—bashed it over the right-centerfield wall for a two-run homer. Say it with me, with Chris Nowak and with Pee-Wee Herman: I meant to do that!
I mean, Bailey's first name is Homer, whaddaya want?
Reid Brignac followed by lacing a double to the right field gap, and it looked like Bailey's Irish Cream was quickly curdling (sorry). Brignac moved to third on Ruggiano's grounder to third, which brought up Matt Joyce, the Bulls' best hitter to date this season. Bailey fell behind Joyce 2-1. The first pitch was called a strike by home plate Umpire Rob Healey, and Joyce looked back at Healey to register his disagreement. Healey then called the fifth pitch strike three, and Joyce turned to him frowning and said, "Come on, man!" He added a few more words of critique of Healey's strike zone before Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo trotted down from the third-base coaching box to intervene.
Next inning, Bailey put newly acquired Joe Dillon (who played a sure-handed third base for the Bulls) on base by hitting him, and Chris Richard hit the next pitch, a nice belt-high fastball, out of the park to give the Bulls a 4-3 lead. That would be the final score.
Newly acquired reliever Joe Bateman got the win, his first, in relief of Bulls' starter Wade Davis. Davis, the big right-hander, went 5 2/3 innings tonight, his longest outing of the year so far, and allowed three runs on five hits and three walks, with four strikeouts. He needed ninety-six pitches by my count, 59 for strikes. Efficiency continues to be an issue for Davis, but it isn't unusual for power pitchers to burn up more pitches trying to overwhelm their adversaries at the plate. What was interesting about Davis's outing was his curveball. I didn't spot a single one in the first two innings, when Davis relied on his heater (it touched 96 mph early, and reached 97 in the fifth). In the third inning he started going to the curve frequently, but he had trouble throwing it for strikes. Without enough command of it, he got into trouble in the fourth, when he allowed the only three Louisville runs of the night. (Oh, those leadoff walks! They always come back to bite you on the a**.)
But back to Bateman. ("Back to Bateman": that sounds like the title of a really awful Adam Sandler movie.) I was vaguely wondering in my last post why this consistently effective reliever hasn't been able to make more headway by age 29. Turns out he suffers from Chad Bradford Syndrome: He throws sidearm, slowly and right-handed, and therefore doesn't "look" like a dominant relief pitcher. (Here's how much the Rays care about that: the Bulls also have a left-handed sidearmer, Randy Choate.) I'm working from memory here, but you probably have to go all the way back to Dennis Eckersley to find a sidearmer who really scared hitters; they're just not respected like top-dealing fireballers are. Bateman's fastball topped out at a modest 89 mph, and mostly he hovered in the high 70s and low 80s with something slider-like. After issuing a walk and then hitting a batter when he first came in, he settled down, retiring four of the remaining five hitters he faced. The only hit he allowed was a dying quail over first baseman Chris Richard's head that became a double for Drew Stubbs (a hit better known as a "Stoubble").
Jason Childers, Randy Choate (actually deployed as a LOOGY tonight—that's unusual for Charlie Montoyo, who doesn't micromanage much—and responding to the call by striking out lefty Danny Dorn, whose name suggests porn stardom) and Winston Abreu finished up. This was my first look at Abreu, and he—unlike Dale Thayer, who imploded in the first game of this series—throws and acts like a bona fide late-inning relief pitcher. His fastball is in the low 90s, and he also relies heavily on a slider that has good down-knifing action. He also wears cool-looking glasses. Abreu struck out two of the three hitters he faced tonight. He sets for his stretch with the glove cocked in such a way, his body poised at such an angle, that he could just as plausibly be holding a bat and readying himself to swing; so that he looks, oddly, like a mirror image of the hitter he's facing. After he throws a pitch, his momentum pulls him strongly down off the mound, and he appears to be vaguely stalking the batter. When one hitter asked for timeout just as Abreu was about to make his pitch, Abreu stalked off the mound toward second base, as if offended. After he fanned Danny Richar to end the game, he did the old kiss-the-fingers-and-point-to-the-sky thing. In other words, he acts like a closer, unlike Thayer, whose mild demeanor suggests a Portland barista or a woodworker.
A final note: One of our readers responded to my existential puzzlement about where players go when they're "assigned to Hudson Valley" by noting that such an assignment is merely a convenient "place" to "put" a player in order to make room for another one. It is, as Mohammad Goldberg described it, a shell game. ("OK, now where's Alex Jamieson? Under this one? This one? Hudson Valley? You sure?") I had actually guessed as much, but assumed that players sent "to" Hudson Valley actually went to a minor-league complex in Florida somewhere. In fact, they don't go anywhere at all. There was Alex Jamieson in the dugout tonight, still a Bull in all but uniform, at the DBAP. He warmed up the pitchers.
See you tomorrow night at the DBAP. Carlos Hernandez tries to build on his last outing, when he threw six shutout innings at Gwinnett.