by Adam Sobsey
The Durham Bulls' last seven games have been decided by two runs or fewer. To some degree that's just a function of chance, and if nothing else it makes for exciting baseball: every game has been meaningful all the way to the last out. Unfortunately for Bulls' fans, their team has lost five of those seven games, either because their bullpen has tanked or because their hitters failed to drive runners home in late-and-close situations---sometimes both.
In last night's 4-2 loss to Toledo, it was the hitters who came up empty again. Bulls' Starter Carlos Hernandez was neither great nor terrible. Although he gave up all four Toledo runs, two of them scored on a line-drive homer by Dane Sardinha---his first of the year---that hit the foul pole just above the wall, 320 feet from home plate. Hernandez walked four in five innings, however, and two of the men he walked came around to score. He needed 96 pitches, and threw only 53 strikes; that's a low ratio for him. After pitching with excellent control for much of the season, Hernandez has struggled to find the plate in his last two outings since missing a start with back spasms. It's tempting to think that he still isn't feeling 100%.
Calvin Medlock and Dewon Day threw three shutout relief innings after Hernandez departed (that's six straight scoreless frames for the Bulls' 'pen in two games), and they gave their hitters a chance to come back. And the Bulls certainly had their chances.
In the seventh inning, Durham pushed across a run to make it 4-2. But with runners at the corners and one out, Matt Joyce was called out on strikes. He vehemently argued the call (according to Bulls' broadcaster Neil Solondz, the pitch in question looked to be well off the plate) and was ejected. Justin Ruggiano flied out to end the threat.
The Bulls threatened again in the eighth. Jon Weber was called out on strikes and protested to plate umpire Jason Bradley; he nearly followed Joyce to the clubhouse. But John Jaso walked and Ray Sadler was hit by a pitch---all in all, the Bulls received five bases on balls and were hit by pitches three times last night. But Rhyne Hughes grounded into a double play to end the inning. The Bulls went down in order in the ninth.
Last weekend, late in the Bulls' 1-7 homestand, I asked Charlie Montoyo about Hughes, the Double-A callup who has hit well recently. Montoyo agreed that Hughes had shown signs of promise, but the manager was still looking for the galvanizing, late-inning hit from Hughes that would allow Montoyo to say that Hughes "just became a Bull." Montoyo laughed when he said this, comparing it jokingly to the way Yankees seem to have to do something dramatic in order to be called "true Yankees." "I haven't said that yet," Montoyo noted of Hughes. Admittedly, that was before Hughes's two-out, game-tying homer in the ninth inning of the Bulls' 11-10 loss at Toledo to open this series (it would have been a game-winner had Justin Ruggiano not been picked off of first base). Nonetheless, Hughes has now failed twice in less than a week in high-leverage situations, and this one was especially ruinous: he not only failed to drive in a run but quashed the rally with his double-play grounder.
The Bulls hit into three double plays last night. They had 14 baserunners but only scored twice. And although their 3-10 performance with runners in scoring position doesn't look all that bad in terms of pure numbers---3-10 is .300, after all---they left nine men on base. Durham is fifth in the International League in on-base average, but only (tied for) ninth in batting average. Although the Bulls are third in walks drawn, they're also second in strikeouts. I don't have the appropriate means of statistical argument at my disposal, but it seems to me that the team's struggle to score runners in clutch situations has almost entirely to do with its subpar overall batting average: the Bulls just don't get enough hits, period, and their batting average with RISP (.246) is fairly near their overall mark (.254). Only Hughes, who is probably just a short-term fill-in (he has only 62 at-bats as a Bull), and Henry Mateo, who has been with the team for less than half the season, are hitting over .300 for Durham. The hitters with the third, fourth and fifth most at-bats on the team---Ray Sadler, Ray Olmedo and Chris Nowak---are hitting .236, .249 and .223 respectively. Only Sadler has anything close to enough power to carry his low average.
Nonetheless, the Bulls are rarely out of a game. The problem is that lately they just aren't winning many of them. You'd like to see them win a few laughers and move away from the knife's edge that they so often walk in their games. Although I've written that they seem to like cutting it close---32 of Durham's 74 games have been decided by one or two runs (maybe it isn't chance, after all)---the more you do that, the more you rely ultimately on luck to win; and if luck evens itself out over the course of a 144-game season, which it usually comes close to doing, you'll wind up finishing not too far from 72-72 when it's all said and done. We're just over halfway through the season. The time to start swinging for the fence, rather than riding it, is now.