When the Bulls arrived home on May 12th after a 3-3 road trip to Charlotte and Gwinnett, their record stood at 18-14. That left them just behind Norfolk for the International League South Division lead, but manager Charlie Montoyo's (pictured, left) team had gone just 12-14 since starting the season 6-0. They looked like a team that could go either way. The southpaw phenom David Price had been erratic, and his righty counterpart Wade Davis was having some control issues. The bullpen was superb but so overworked that fatigue threatened to catch up to them later. The hitting was decent but not exciting, much like the team's record: The Bulls kept splitting series---one up, one down, one up, one down.
In their first game back at home, the normally reliable closer Dale Thayer gagged on a four-run, ninth-inning lead (with help from a fielding error) and handed the Louisville Bats a 7-6 win. The next night, Carlos Hernandez put the Bulls in a 5-0 hole early, and although the Bulls surged back to win the game, 11-6, you couldn't help but continue to wonder what sort of ball club this really was.
But the next night's game, that wild 13-9, 11-inning fireworks display in which Chris Richard tied a 52-year-old league record by hitting two grand slams, had the feel of one of those season-changing, identity-forming games. Since then, the Bulls have really looked like a cohesive unit.
As any manager will probably tell you, starting pitching is the engine of any team. After the 13-9 win over Louisville, Bulls starters Mitch Talbot, David Price, Wade Davis and Carlos Hernandez combined to go 24 2/3 innings and allow just three runs (all by Talbot). The latter three hurled 17 2/3 scoreless innings, and Talbot allowed his runs in the first two innings of his start---so the foursome has tossed 21 2/3 consecutive frames without allowing a run. Had Price not been lifted after hitting his pitch count in five innings on Sunday, the Bulls might easily have swept Rochester; as it was, the loss felt less like a setback than like an oh-well outcome of unfortunate minor-league constraints. Yesterday's effort by Hernandez was backed up by lavish hitting, and the Bulls beat Rochester on a gorgeous afternoon, 10-1, to finish a 6-2 homestand.
The relievers haven't been as dominant as the starters, but the bullpen's ERA over the last four games is a solid 2.92. Durham is currently demonstrating why the Indy's season preview was called "Arms and the Men."
But the hitters are making a case for another article that could be called "Bats and the Men." The Bulls scored 51 runs during the eight-game homestand against Louisville and Rochester, almost 6.4 per game. It should be said that 24 of those runs came in consecutive slugfests against Louisville, but still, this is a team that can score, and in a hurry: The Bulls lead the International League in homers and doubles. There is dangerous power in the middle of the lineup, especially when Justin Ruggiano, Matt Joyce and Chris Richard go 3-4-5 in the order. Ray Sadler will hammer mistake-fastballs---he hit a bomb of a homer yesterday---and if John Jaso finds his stroke, he'll add potency to the spot in the order that softball teams like to call "second cleanup."
If there is a notable weakness right now, it's the baserunning. The Bulls seem to make at least one thoughtless mistake on the basepaths in each game. Yesterday, Matt Joyce ran himself into a 9-2-6 double play trying to advance to second on Joe Dillon's sacrifice fly. In the third inning, Jon Weber got picked off of first base, and then ejected from the game for kvetching about umpire Jason Klein's call. (Chris Richard, whom manager Charlie Montoyo was trying to rest because of a tight hamstring) took Weber's spot in the lineup and cracked a two-run double.) Joyce then got thrown out at home in the seventh trying to score on a sharp grounder to third. On Sunday, Joe Dillon was nailed at third trying to tag up and advance after a flyout to right. The day before that, Ray Olmedo was gunned down by a mile trying to steal second base; had he stayed put, he would have scored what would have proved to have been a critical run (Durham lost by a run) on a Weber double three batters later. A few innings later, Reid Brignac got picked off of first base. And so on.
Although some of these basepath suicides have been the result of perhaps admirable aggressiveness, that aggressiveness hasn't been matched by sound decision-making.
Nonetheless, this is a team that seems to be on a roll right now. The atmosphere in the clubhouse after yesterday's win was jovial, loose and confident. A lot of the credit for the teams' success and mood has to be due to Charlie Montoyo. Montoyo is a keenly attentive, affable, intelligent manager who seems to be doing something to make his charges believe they're part of a unit. This is very difficult to do in the upper-level minors, where each team comprises inherently mismatched parts, some of whom are in very different phases of their careers. There are young stars-in-the-making, like Price and Davis, lockering next to former major leaguers trying to come back from injuries (e.g. Hernandez); there are older guys maintaining their skills and their bank accounts, hoping for an opportunity while probably also looking ahead to post-playing careers (Richard, perhaps, or Dillon, who has already retired once to coach college baseball); there are guys in their mid-20s trying like the dickens to manufacture whatever skill or will they need to get over the hump and stick in the bigs (Justin Ruggiano, Chris Nowak).
And there are complementary cogs like Craig Albernaz, the Bulls' backup catcher, filling in admirably for Michel Hernandez, who was unexpectedly summoned to Tampa and has become something of a fixture there, it seems. Albernaz, getting the customary day-game-after-a-night-game start in place of John Jaso, caught Hernandez's gem yesterday. Hernandez told me that he didn't think he had his best stuff. His curveball particularly isn't working for him, he said; he called it a "feel pitch," which gave me an inner chuckle as I recalled that David Price had used the exact same phrase to describe the changeup, which Hernandez throws expertly. Charlie Montoyo disagreed with Hernandez's self-assessment, and so did Albernaz---strongly---noting that Hernandez was throwing a "glove-side-down" (low and off the middle of the plate) fastball at will, and using his changeup to keep hitters off-balance. (Kids, that pitching lesson again---say it with me now---is keep the ball down, change speeds and location, throw strikes. Also this.)
Albernaz is 26 years old, a rock-solid 5'8" with a shaved head, and he's seeing his first action at the AAA level. He has great self-assurance and optimism without being cocky or insincere. He told me (in his killer Fall River, MA accent) that Hernandez had made a recent adjustment in his delivery: He lowered his leg kick, which, if yesterday's performance was any indication, has helped his results a great deal.
But the most revealing part of my chat with Albernaz may perhaps not have been in anything he told me about Hernandez's work on the mound. As we talked, Hernandez came over, tapped me gently on the shoulder, pointed at Albernaz, and said, "He did a great job calling the game. Write that down." Albernaz modestly tried to shrug it off, but it was clear that already there is some bonding taking place off the pasture and in the Bulls' corral and at the feeding trough. That is a credit to Montoyo's professionalism, his easygoing personality and his full commitment to his job.
The Bulls are off today before beginning an eight-game road trip to Lehigh Valley and Rochester, but Montoyo told reporters that "I wish we didn't have a day off." That's because Durham's playing so well right now that Montoyo could have been concerned that the interruption could break the team's momentum---that elusive substance that doesn't really exist in baseball but somehow seems to exist anyway. But if indeed that fireworks display on Friday night gave this team the spark it needed, and if the Bulls starting pitchers stay at their current level (some pressure is on James Houser to rebound from his awful start in that 13-9 game), then Montoyo---and Bulls fans---have nothing to worry about. A problem will arise only if the arms are so strong that they get called up to the majors. But if that happens, expect Montoyo to go right back to work, restitching his team out of new fabric.
I'll be back starting tomorrow with daily---and shorter (I know what you're thinking: Thank God!)---dispatches during the Bulls' road trip north.