by Adam Sobsey
As I write this, the Durham Bulls are on a bus, probably somewhere in West Virginia. Some of them may be sleeping, recharging their batteries after expending major amps in a four-game sweep of the Columbus Clippers. Last night they clubbed four homers and three doubles, all of those hits save one double off of Kirk Saarloos, whom they beat earlier this year, in a 9-6 win at Columbus.
The Bulls' gun show was essential, because their bullpen backfired: Julio DePaula and Joe Bateman were lit up for four runs on five hits in just two innings, and only the large cushion they were supplied allowed them to crash-land without any casualties. I mentioned a couple of games ago that the Bulls seemed to be on the verge of a hitting binge, and over the last few games, they've gone on that bender: they scored 33 runs in the series against Columbus, and they seem to have gotten their home run stroke back. After leading the league in round-trippers for a good portion of the season, the Bulls fell out of the top spot (although they still lead in doubles). But if they keep on keeping on, they'll have that lead back soon enough. This is a team that looks explosive again. If Chris Richard finds his swing, so much the better: he still leads the team in homers despite having missed about 40% of the season with hamstring problems.
Last night, Durham wasted no time: the very first batter of the game, Jon Weber, went yard.
Weber's road roommate, Henry Mateo, did precisely the same thing in the first game of the series, so perhaps there was a friendly competition going. With his roomie getting a day off, Weber batted leadoff, a position he has ceded to Mateo after holding it for the first couple of months of the season. He jumped right on it last night: bang, 1-0. After Columbus got the run back off of Carlos Hernandez (who pitched well), the Bulls exploded for five runs in the fourth inning off of Saarloos on a pair of dingers. One was a three-run blast by Rhyne Hughes, who ended a brief mini-slump (0-5 with four Ks over two games); the other came courtesy of ninth-place hitter Chris Nowak.
Nowak looks like a power hitter---he's 6-foot-5 and built like a Buick---but he's more of a selective, spray-type hitter. The closest comparison I can think of is to Mark Teahen of the Kansas City Royals. Teahen, like Nowak, is a third baseman, and not an especially good one; but his low-voltage offense hasn't been viable at that position, where power usually resides (Alex Rodriguez, Evan Longoria, Chipper Jones). The Royals finally tried him at second base in spring training but that didn't take, partially because his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame is unwieldy in the middle of the infield; so he's ensconced at third for now. If Nowak is going to succeed there, or at first base where he also sometimes plays, he'll have to increase his home-run power along with his batting average (.232, with a .651 OPS).
Matt Joyce led off the fifth with a tape-measure tater, and with a 4-5 performance that also included a pair of doubles---and, for good measure, a stolen base---he seems to be officially out of his slump. Justin Ruggiano went 2-4 with a double, and John Jaso was also 2-4 (and broke out of an 0-23 skid with RISP). It was a game in which the bats protected the bullpen, and that seems fair given that it's often been the other way around this season. One thing's sure: the relievers need more rest than they get; you can see some evidence of the abuse at Watching Durham Bulls Baseball. If they have to keep sucking up all those innings, they'll eventually go poof like a balloon.
Fortunately, not just the bullpen but the whole team gets a day off Wednesday after the long red-eye bus ride back from Ohio. And the All-Star break is less than two weeks away. As the steamy dog days approach, the Bulls' starters will have to do more to take the burden off of their support staff if the team is to contend for the playoffs. The plugged-in hitters are currently (ha ha) doing plenty for the cause as it is. There are fireworks scheduled for the next two games at the DABP, but the Bulls lineup will render those redundant if they keep launching rockets.
The Bulls are at home against cross-state rival Charlotte, which like Durham has also won five straight, on Thursday. Tampa Bay demotee Andy Sonnanstine is on the mound. If you're any kind of fan, you'll be out at the DBAP to see him take his first step back to the majors.