by Adam Sobsey
Durham Bulls' broadcaster Neil Solondz must have used the word "depleted" at least eight times last night to describe the current state of the Durham bullpen. After the team played 29 innings of baseball over the last two nights, there were only three marginally rested relievers available to manager Charlie Montoyo in the first game of the Bulls' lone visit to the Indianapolis Indians this season.
Unfortunately, the Bulls' starter came into the game already depleted. The Tampa Bay Rays' front office has decided that the left arm of Carlos Hernandez, who is just a couple of years off of major shoulder surgery (his second such operation since 2002), needs to be treated more gently. For the rest of the season, he'll be restricted to five innings or about 75 pitches per start, whichever comes first, a regression to early-season limits.
Depleted or not, then, the bullpen would have to suck it up on Monday night in Indianapolis---and perhaps more than they might have guessed. Hernandez struggled with his control, running deep counts to a number of hitters and walking a couple of batters early, and he was finished after 3 2/3 innings with the Bulls trailing 2-0.
Wouldn't you know it, Calvin Medlock was heroic in relief, tossing 3 1/3 innings of one-run ball. Medlock needed 21 fewer pitches than Hernandez to record just one out less. His only mistake was a hanging slider to Brian Bixler, who bixled it out of the park for a fifth-inning solo home run. Joe Bateman followed Medlock with a scoreless eighth. All in all, it was a very effective performance by the "depleted" bullpen.
It turned out to make no difference.
The depletion among the Bulls was at the plate, not on the mound. For the third consecutive night, the hitters struggled to deliver runners in scoring position. They went 9-47 in the four-game series against Louisville and hit bottom when they were shut out by a pair of infielders for the final two innings of Sunday's grim loss to the Bats; they followed that with a pristine 0-9 whitewash with RISP last night. Listening on the radio, you didn't get the feeling that the Bulls were even likely to score whenever a runner advanced to second; each ostensible threat seemed more like an instant rally-killer. Sure, Chris Richard just missed homering a couple of times, getting under pitches and skying out; sure, the Indians' Tagg Bozied (his given first name is Robert, but do you even need "Tagg" with a last name like Bozied?) made a spectacular flying interception of Ray Olmedo's would-be two-run gapper in the second inning, which in retrospect was the mathematical difference in the game. But even though they put a runner on base in every inning except the ninth, the Bulls never really seemed like they had a chance.
An offhand comment by Neil Solondz illuminated the cause of the Bulls' recent struggles in the clutch. Noting that the Bulls are at or near the top of the league in home runs, doubles and walks, but that they also strike out at a high rate and don't hit for average (their .256 clip is 10th in a 14-team league), Solondz remarked that theirs is "a high-risk, high-reward offense." In other words, the Bulls aren't going to chip away at you with little jabs. They bring haymakers. They'll take pitches, work walks, and look for long balls. Overall, this tactic works rather well much of the time, but its weakness is in its low-contact inconstancy. The Bulls don't often string hits together; they strike out too often for that; and small-balling a man to second doesn't seem to help them as often as you'd like to think, because they'd just as soon hit a homer with him planted on first base (and they're near the back of the pack in stolen bases, too).
So if your game is power, you have to bring the big sticks to the lumberyard every night. Rhyne Hughes launched a solo homer last night (and also doubled: signs of life from a hitter who's been in a funk); otherwise, the Bulls lacked their customary puissance. They were also without Matt Joyce. He may have been due for a scheduled night off, but Chris Wise over at Watching Durham Bulls Baseball (hereafter abbreviated to WDBB, kids; I don't want no early arthritis) has noticed that Charlie Montoyo habitually sits a player the night after he's been ejected from a ballgame.
Although the bullpen has been overused, as usual only more so lately, you could be forgiven for thinking that it's really the position players whose wicks are burned down. After all, the relievers sit around in the dugout or bullpen most of the night, waiting for something to do, while the fielders/hitters have to stay alert, loose and active all night long: run the basepaths, run and dive for balls, swing at balls, catch and throw balls... you know, play baseball. Meanwhile, John Jaso has now caught 37 innings over the last three nights (I was surprised that Craig Albernaz didn't get the start on Monday): that's about 5 1/2 hours of squatting and 592 pitches! Plus, the Bulls probably took a late-night bus ride from Louisville to Indianapolis in the wee small hours of the morning on Monday. Sure, that's only about two hours, but it's two hours when you'd rather be sleeping stretched out in a bed.
And whether they got some real rest overnight or didn't, things get no easier on Tuesday evening. The Bulls send Jason Cromer to the mound against the Indians' Ian Snell. Snell is recently down from the big-league club in Pittsburgh---of his own volition, according to reports, and disgruntled with the Pirates' organization. Neither of those pretexts bodes well for hitting against him: Snell's frustrated and angry, and he's giving a de facto audition for other clubs these days; it shows in his work so far for Indianapolis. In four starts, he's allowed exactly one earned run for a truly horrifying 0.34 ERA. In 26 1/3 innings, he has struck out 34, an astounding half of them in one seven-inning start (including 13 in a row! Jeebus!). So if the Bulls have any power left in the pack, they'll probably need all of it on Tuesday.