by Adam Sobsey
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="400" caption="The Bulls were rained out at Scranton on Tuesday"][/caption]The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, who play in none of the three places implied by their name, have had 12 games postponed this year. Some of those postponements came on sunny days: the drainage system at PNC Park in Moosic, PA is superannuated and ineffective; after wet weather passes, the field is sometimes still too wet to play on. A lot of people have been pretty mad about it.
On Wednesday night, though, rain was the culprit. The folks in Scranton, along with help from the New York Yankees, have been working to jerry-build a temporary fix until a major overhaul of the ballpark can be done during the offseason; and so the upshot is that one can only hope that Thursday's doubleheader, which is scheduled to begin at 1:05 p.m., actually takes place. If it does, a pair of the Bulls' three starting Aitches will pitch: Jeremy Hellickson (who was slated for Wednesday) and Carlos Hernandez. Gwinnett and Norfolk both won last night, and crept to within 1.5 and 3 games of the Bulls, respectively, in the International League South Division.
A few notes follow:
* After my report on the Bulls' series-opening win over Scranton on Tuesday, Bulls' broadcaster Neil Solondz set the record straight on a couple of things. First, Dale Thayer was with the team on Tuesday, but he had pitched five of the last six days, and after traveling to Pennsylvania from Scranton, he was given a day to rest. Second, Elliot Johnson's apparent S.B.G. on Tuesday wasn't, according to Solondz, exactly a G., nor was it at all S. Johnson tagged up from first on a flyout to right field by Reid Brignac in the sixth inning and was thrown out by Shelley Duncan. It seems that Brignac's fly chased Duncan all the way into the right-field corner near the foul pole, and Duncan caught the ball going away from the infield, facing the foul line and/or wall. He turned and fired a strike to nail Johnson at second, so this was a case of a baserunner making an aggressive, calculated effort and simply losing out to a superb play. Ironically, Duncan had a much easier play on the ensuing hit to right field by Matt Joyce; he had a chance to throw Joyce out trying to stretch his single into a double, but his throw wasn't as strong, and Joyce was safe.
* Joyce's double pulled him into a second-place tie for league-high with Columbus's Jordan Brown. Joyce has hit his 29 two-baggers in just 78 games (Brown has played in 92). A few spots down, Reid Brignac is tied for seventh place in the league with 25 doubles. He's needed only 71 games to hit that many; the two other guys with 25 doubles have needed 95 and 94 games. Jon Weber still leads the league with 35. As you might guess, Durham is tops overall in the category, as they are in homers. The Bulls are second in walks and, not surprisingly, strikeouts.
* Chris Wise at WDBB has a useful chart/graph that gives a visual readout of the rises and falls of all four teams in the Bulls' division. What you'll notice: Charlotte is consistently worse than the other three teams, and Durham and Norfolk have been in virtual lockstep since all the way back in the third week of the season. That's remarkable, when you think of all the changes that the teams have undergone as the months have unspooled. Meanwhile, Gwinnett seems to be the dark horse: after a slow start, the Braves have worked their way up into the thick of things. From here on out, any of the three teams could easily win the division.
* Which of them pulls it out may be decided more strongly by extrinsic forces than by the Bulls per se (since there's really no such thing as per se in the minors). The trade deadline is nearly upon us, and we could see not only Triple-A ballplayers shipped out (or shipped in) but also promoted to the majors after holes on big-league rosters are created by trades at the top level.
* The trade deadline, in tandem with the WDBB chart and the rainout at Scranton, also pushed to the front burner some thoughts I've been having about minor-league teams generally. You might think that one or two clubs would be far better than the rest of the pack, as usually seems to happen in every sport. But the three division leaders are clustered within two games of one another well below the .600 mark, and there are a lot of teams hovering around .500. (Only one team---the hopeless, Mets-run Buffalo Bisons---is truly awful.)
When you think about it, the general parity makes perfect sense. If any team gets too good, it is of course due to having really good players---who are naturally promoted to the majors in fairly short order. Imagine where 56-48 Norfolk might be if they still had Nolan Reimold, Oscar Salazar and Matt Wieters, who are all up in Baltimore now (ace starter Chris Tillman was just promoted, too). Gwinnett lost three superb starters to the majors earlier this year: Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen and Charlie Morton, and the Braves have had games started by an astounding 18 different pitchers (a current member of their rotation is the 37-year-old John Halama). There's just no way to keep winning at a high rate with that kind of instability, with talent levels constantly surging and regressing, skewing and readjusting. For every Scott Kazmir start in Durham, there's also a Chris Mason start. David Price goes up, Matt DeSalvo comes in (or, going the other way, Rhyne Hughes outhits Chris Nowak and forces him out of Durham). The Yankees just traded for the thoroughly unimpressive Jason Hirsh and assigned him to Scranton, simply because the starting rotation there had only four guys in it and one game out of five had to be managed by a motley crew of relievers, baggage handlers and dog catchers. And on and on it goes...
What you're left with is the suspicion that the last teams standing will be the ones built largely out of pretty good or even very good older players who are better than Bondo patches like Jason Hirsh and Henry Mateo but aren't quite good enough to make it to the majors---or if they do make it, to stick there. That's why Bulls fans might like their chances, because the team is loaded with guys like that: Jason Childers, Jason Cromer, Julio DePaula, Chris Richard, Justin Ruggiano, Dale Thayer, Jon Weber, etc. Of course, Gwinnett (Barbaro Canizares, Reid Gorecki) and Norfolk (Michael Aubrey, Alberto Castillo) aren't exactly starved for players like that either. In other words, as Bette Davis famously said in All About Eve, "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy ride."
* Speaking of players shipped in and out, which I was doing somewhere back there and thus provides a clumsy segue, former Bull Shawn Riggans is a Bull again. The oft-injured catcher has finished his rehabbing in the low-level minors and was assigned to Durham by the Rays. This probably means that he'll share time behind the plate with John Jaso, and that Craig Albernaz will be sent back to Montgomery or even lower down the minor-league ladder, unless he becomes the team's favored ambassador to Hudson Valley (in which case adios Alex Jamieson).
Albernaz has performed really well for the Bulls. He's not much of a hitter, but he did come up with the occasional big base-knock, he called games intelligently, and he threw out some runners on the bases with his blow-dart gun of an arm. I'll be sad to see him go, if that's what happens to him. He'll almost surely be back with the Bulls for the last few games of the season, after rosters expand at the end of August. And if either Jaso or Riggans is moved before that via trade or promotion, Albernaz will return sooner.
Doubleheader today (weather and drainage permitting). After playing zero twinbills for the first 100(ish) games of the year, the Bulls will have played two of them in five days.