A week and a day ago at the DBAP, the Bulls jumped on Pawtucket Red Sox' starter Michael Bowden for six runs in the first inning and appeared to put a quick end to both the game and their five-game losing streak. But that contest came during a horrendous stretch in which Durham kept finding ways to lose: the Bulls didn't score again, and Pawtucket chipped away at the lead and finally came from behind to win, 8-6.
On Saturday night against the Columbus Clippers, the Bulls charged out of the gate again, this time even more quickly: Henry Mateo hit the second pitch of the game from Jack Cassel out of the park for a leadoff solo home run. The Bulls tacked on three more in the top of the first with generous help from the Clippers, who donated three infield errors.
Still, you could be forgiven for wondering whether the Bulls would find a way to make their hefty first-inning lead stand up. Not only had they choked on their last one against the PawSox, but Durham starter James Houser, who has been struggling badly, was on the mound.
Wouldn't you know it, Houser turned in probably his best start of the year, and the Bulls sank Columbus, 12-5.
Over his last three starts, in which he managed just 12 1/3 innings combined, Houser had been torched for 20 hits and 17 earned runs, walking 13 men with only four strikeouts. It seemed as if the International League might finally have solved Houser's three-pitch repertoire (slow, slower, slowest), and the young left-hander wasn't making the necessary adjustments. In his earlier, more successful starts, he had simply thrown strikes and let hitters get themselves out (and he was fairly lucky that an inordinate number of hard or deep drives landed in fielders' gloves). But by the time of his last outing, he looked afraid to throw the ball over the plate lest it be hit, exacerbating his problems by putting men on base via walks and then watching them score on hits once he threw strikes. With Jason Cromer performing extremely well and Mitch Talbot expected back from shoulder tightness (when is Talbot coming back, anyway?), Houser's days in the Bulls' rotation appeared numbered.
Houser had faced Columbus once before, on April 30---against the same Columbus pitcher, Cassel, as it happened---and although he allowed only two runs, he needed 83 pitches to get through just four innings. He was long gone by the time the Bulls won that game. Facing the Clippers for the second time, Houser seemed ripe for a pounding.
Think again. I didn't see or hear most of the game, but apparently Houser made his adjustments. He tossed six innings of three-hit, shutout ball, limiting his walks to just two and striking out three. He threw 101 pitches, 68 for strikes. And as the game went on, Houser induced a higher proportion of ground balls, a very positive sign for a pitcher who has allowed a scary number of airborne toxic events, many of them long ones.
Three disclaimers about Houser's performance: first, he's a little better against left-handed hitters, and Columbus had four in its lineup; second, only three of last night's Clippers appeared in the April 30 game, so most of the hitters probably hadn't seen him before; third, for all I know, Houser's outs were all 380-foot fly balls and lacerated grounders. Still, six scoreless innings are six scoreless innings, and Houser deserves praise for fighting through his three-game slide and finding a groove again. Mitch Talbot may or may not be back soon, and Andy Sonnanstine is apparently scheduled to come down to Durham from Tampa, but at least Houser isn't making it easy for the Rays to move him out of the Bulls' pitching herd.
Meanwhile, the Bulls hitters piled on in support of Houser's performance, exploding for six runs in the sixth inning and adding single tallies in the seventh and eighth. They collected 14 hits overall, half of them for extra bases. Henry Mateo hit his second home run of the game in the sixth inning and Reid Brignac added one of his own in the eighth. Matt Joyce had a pair of doubles (and lined out once), showing signs of emerging from his funk; Justin Ruggiano was 3-5 (and also lined out once) and nearly made a spectacular diving catch in the ninth, long after the outcome was decided; even banjo-hitting backup catcher Craig Albernaz ripped a three-run double in the sixth to turn this one into a laugher, the Bulls' first easy win in weeks.
The only blotch on an otherwise perfectly Bullish evening came in the ninth inning, when reliever Dewon Day, apparently unnerved by home plate umpire Chris Bakke's suddenly straitened strike zone and the Clippers' habit of fouling off countless two-strike pitches, allowed five runs on three hits and two walks, with an error by first baseman Chris Richard adding to the damage.
Nonetheless, last night's win was a refreshing change of pace from the nail-biters Durham has been engaging in lately: it was the first time in nine games that a Bulls game was decided by more than two runs. Not only that, with Norfolk's loss, the victory lifted Durham to the top of the International League South division, a place they haven't been in a while; they may have a little trouble with the altitude at first. And on top of it all, hitting coach Dave Myers, spelling Charlie Montoyo while the manager is away with his family, is 1-0 at the helm.
Former Columbus Clipper Matt DeSalvo takes the mound for the Bulls on Sunday, when the Bulls look to put together their first three-game winning streak since back when people still thought H1N1 was a multivitamin or something.