DBAP/ DURHAM---A bizarre rain shower hit the DBAP yesterday around the sixth inning of the Bulls' 5-3 win over Norfolk yesterday, their third victory in four games so far in the series between the two top teams in the division. It was bizarre because the sky was mostly sunny; but if you looked off to the southwest, beyond the first base bleachers, you could see a stack of clouds with a pale rainbow arcing through them. (Sorry I don't have a camera-phone thingy and had to use the stock image above. I'm sure the Indy will buy me the equipment soon. [Four minute pause to recover from hysterical laughter.]) The rain let up quickly---making a steamy late afternoon steamier---but the rainbow confirmed that a few rays of luck helped the Bulls get the win, which put them 1.5 games up on Norfolk in the International League South (Gwinnett is now just a game back). Details on a rather unlikely game follow:
In the top of the fourth inning, leading 2-0, Norfolk had men on first and third with one out. Number nine batter Carlos Rojas, hitting .171 coming into the game, boomed a double to the left-center field gap off of Bulls' starter Jason Cromer (more about Cromer's outing later). Jeff Fiorentino scored from third base, and Blake Davis was waved home. Justin Ruggiano hit the cutoff man, Reid Brignac, who turned and fired home. His throw was a bit up the first base side of the plate, and catcher John Jaso was positioned a little that way anyway---he could have been a little closer to third in an effort to block the plate. But it didn't really matter much, because Davis beat the throw by a step and slid in safely.
Except that home plate umpire Damien Beal (also the crew chief) was, like Jaso, not ideally positioned for the play. He was in fact behind Jaso toward the Bulls' dugout, and so Jaso was blocking Beal's view. So Beal only saw Jaso make the catch, whirl and apply a swipe tag as Davis slid into the plate in a cloud of dust. Beal called Davis out, and for some reason no Tides complained, not even their manager Gary Allenson, who had a good view of the play from the third-base coaching box. The score held at 3-0 after Cromer got former Bull Joey Gathright to fly out to left field and end the inning.
Leading off the bottom of the fourth inning, the Bulls' Matt Joyce smoked an opposite-field liner off the Blue Monster in left field. It hit about seven feet up and bounced right to Gathright. Joyce must not have read this article about the idiosyncrasies of the wall, nor spoken with Jon Weber about building a healthy relationship with it. (Hat tip to Chris Wise over at WDBB for alerting me to the article; it's sad, though, that the N&O's presence at the DBAP is so vestigial---they send someone to cover only about one of every ten games---that a third party had to point out the paper's story, whose author I have never seen at the ballpark.) If he had, he would have known that the Blue Monster taketh away extra bases on hits like this one. As Joyce rounded first, Gathright was already up and turning to throw to second. Anything remotely like a decent throw would have nailed Joyce easily, but Gathright sailed it way over the second baseman's head and Joyce had a lucky double.
After Justin Ruggiano and Chris Richard struck out---the fourth and fifth hitters yesterday, they fanned five times between them and were 1-8 with a harmless single---Jon Weber hit what he later called a "cue shot" that spun counterclockwise as it bounced toward Norfolk shortstop Blake Davis. Joyce crossed paths with it just after the ball hit a patch of balding sod (see yesterday's post for some notes about that) and took cartoonishly wacky hop about 30 degrees toward second base. Davis could only stare helplessly after it as it dribbled into left field for an RBI single. Weber grinned after describing the play briefly, and then (uncharacteristically!) stopped talking, because you simply don't analyze a gift like that one.
By the way, Weber has been peppering the outfield with doubles lately---he had three in Saturday's doubleheader, two of them off of his old friend the Blue Monster---and is now up to an astonishing 35 on the year. That leads the league by far: he has 25% more (!) two-baggers than the nearest competitor. It also leads every single league in baseball, including the majors, except for the Pacific Coast League, where Las Vegas's Randy Ruiz has hit 40 doubles. It should be said, though, that Las Vegas's Cashman Field is a whopping 433 feet to center field, making for huge power alleys that probably, I'd wager, foster doubles: the team leads the PCL in the category by a wide margin. Ruiz has also played in 12 more games than Weber has.
I suppose you could argue that the Bulls had one piece of luck even out in the last of the fifth inning on Sunday. After a booming, no-luck-required home run by Rhyne Hughes (more below on him), Ray Olmedo reached on an error by Blake Davis, who I'm now realizing, as I write this post, had quite an eventful day---he also spent some time in a colloquy with Damien Beal after Beal rang him up looking at strike three in the top of the sixth. Henry Mateo then dropped a beautiful sacrifice bunt down the line and beat out the throw on a close play, earning an infield single. Reid Brignac followed with another great sacrifice bunt, and he too beat the throw---but was called out by first base umpire Derek Crabill, who I guess didn't feel comfortable ruling two straight sacrifice bunters safe or something. So instead of bases-loaded, no outs, it was second and third and one out. Joyce hit a sacrifice fly to tie the game, and Ruggiano flied out to end the inning, which could have been a bigger one with the correct call on Brignac's bunt.
As it happened, the Bulls didn't need help from the umpires, because Davis added a sixth-inning throwing error to his fielding miscue, which led to the go-ahead (unearned) run when Hughes ripped a double to right to score John Jaso. The Bulls got an insurance run on two more doubles in the seventh by Brignac and Joyce (the latter is third in the IL in doubles with 27, despite playing in only 76 of the Bulls' 102 games).
* Rhyne Hughes is on a rampage over the last three games: 9-15 with a homer, four doubles and no strikeouts. He's swinging the bat right now as though he simply can't fail to get a hit: aggressive, locked in, canny. He hasn't been around the clubhouse to talk to either of the last two days (I saw the big slugger lifting weights immediately after one of the Saturday games), but I asked Charlie Montoyo about him, and Montoyo, after first giving us a "Hughes was huge today" wordplay-lede for us to use if we liked, then mentioned Hughes's streakiness (which Chris over at WDBB noted as well). "He either struggles a little bit or he's really hot," Montoyo said of Hughes. Right now, he's basically carrying the team, which hasn't actually scored that many runs (17 total) despite winning three of four so far against Norfolk.
* Montoyo was also impressed by Jason Cromer, who "wasn't sharp" but battled. He threw strikes, though (67 in 94 pitches over seven innings), and let the Tides hit the ball. Not that many of the whopping 11 hits he allowed were hit all that hard, and Cromer didn't walk a batter---in fact, there were no walks in the game at all, which I'd bet was a first this season for a Bulls game (no, I am not going to look that up). Cromer showed great maturity on the mound, escaping major trouble and pitching around a pair of errors by his fielders.
* Jorge Julio pitched a scoreless eighth inning and has his ERA down to 5.49, about five runs lower than it was a few weeks ago. Charlie Montoyo's eyes lit up when I asked about Julio's recent success. "If Julio gets hot and starts pitching like he should"---i.e. the way he has shown himself to be capable of in the past---"we're gonna be OK in the back end [of the bullpen]," Montoyo said. Meanwhile, Jason Childers notched his third save in as many days ("Please don't jinx it," he implored me, laughing), and has needed a total of just 21 pitches (!) to do so. I asked Childers about his new role as closer since Dale Thayer's departure, and Childers noted that yes, you do approach a ninth-inning save situation differently than you do, say, a sixth-inning tie, when you know your team will have chances to pick you up should you falter. You don't want to, and you shouldn't, but you do: you bear down harder when you know you're the last man standing.
Childers also talked about his approach to retiring Joey Gathright. The two are former teammates, and Childers has faced him a number of times recently. Apparently, Gathright told Childers he was annoyed that Childers had gotten him out with a changeup right before the All-Star break in Norfolk, so after Childers started him with a pair of changeups yesterday (one of which Gathright swung through), he threw a cut fastball that Gathright couldn't do much with and grounded right back to Childers, of course, to end the game. I doubt we'll see Childers tonight, but he said he felt fine after pitching three straight days. Not only has he needed very few pitches to do his work, but "I don't throw hard enough to get sore," he joked: a reminder that you only have to change speeds and locations in order to succeed, not blow fastballs by people.
* Speaking of fastballs and changeups, I had a chance to ask Jeremy Hellickson about his repertoire last night after the game. I was specifically interested in the unusual, spinning motion of Hellickson's changeup. He told me that he throws a circle change, which he learned a couple of years ago from the Rays' pitching coordinator Dick Bosman. Research suggests that the circle change (the grip is like making an "OK" sign with your fingers) breaks away a little more than a palm change or a three-finger change. I'm tempted to speculate that Hellickson is also turning over his wrist a bit when he throws the circle change, adding to the spin and horizontal break, but Hellickson didn't mention that.
I'm late posting today, and the final game of the series starts in a little over six hours. If the Bulls can win tonight, they'll have taken four of five from Norfolk over the extended weekend, and increased their division lead to 2.5 games (well, if Gwinnett cooperates by losing, which they haven't done much of lately). Somehow, that seems like it would be a big psychological edge as the Bulls head out of town for a four-game set at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the league's best team. Luck got them some help on Sunday; they'll probably need a little extra old-fashioned skill tonight. To that end, their best starting pitcher is on the mound: Wade Davis, who is coming off of one of his better starts of the season.