by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---There was a stretch of games earlier this season---it seems a long time ago now---when it felt like the Bulls were rallying for wins nearly every night. They almost appeared to be deliberately waiting until the late innings to go to work. They'd go into the ninth down three runs and tie the game with late extra-base hits before winning in extras; or they'd scratch the runs out by exploiting errors and hit batters; and then, of course, there was the game when Chris Richard hit two grand slams. Bulls' fans almost grew to expect late-night heroics from their team.
But of course you can't keep playing like that or you'll need bypass surgery, and the Bulls have had few zero-hour comebacks lately---in fact, I can't even remember the last one. In yesterday's post, when I foolishly decided to promise that soon the Bulls would resume hitting homers and Dale Thayer would look like his early-season self again (maybe he should re-grow the mustache), I nearly added that it had been a long while since we'd seen ninth-inning fireworks from the team and so we would probably soon see another heart-stopper.
Guess what? Bulls won a heart-stopper.
The game had been in hand for Indianapolis since the fifth inning, at which point they led 6-1. Jeremy Hellickson had turned in an all-over-the-place outing for the Bulls, giving up six hits and six runs and hitting three batters (!) in just 4 2/3 innings, but also striking out seven. In the first and fifth, he looked awful; in the third and fourth, unhittable. Chris Richard had hit a solo homer in the second inning, but the Bulls had gotten little else going against Indians' starter Daniel McCutchen, who looked fairly certain to collect his 11th win, second most in the league.
The Bulls added single runs in the sixth and seventh, however, off of McCutchen and reliever Denny Bautista; and Durham reliever Joe Nelson, making his first appearance for Durham since being sent down from Tampa, was dazzling in a two-inning relief stint. He threw 25 pitches and the Indians swung and missed nine times. (The two teams combined to strike out an astonishing 26 times all told.) His changeup had nasty fade and curl, his fastball was up into the upper 80s---Nelson told me after the game that that was a few mph faster than what he'd been able to muster in Tampa---and even though he gave up a pair of singles, he pitched around them easily and fanned four Indians.
So it was 6-3 in the last of the seventh and Denny Bautista, who made 51 major-league appearances last year, was facing Reid Brignac with two outs and runners on second and third. The count was 2-1 when Bautista threw a fastball that looked low and away, or probably at least low or away, but home plate umpire Kevin Causey had been giving that pitch to the pitchers for much of the night, and he called it a strike. Brignac was displeased; the fans were displeased. Bautista, who had already walked a batter in the inning, had just gotten a bit of help from Causey in reversing the momentum of balls out of the strike zone that seemed to be mounting in the Bulls' favor. Instead of 3-1, it was 2-2 and Brignac now had to swing defensively. He fouled off a pitch, but then Bautista reared back and threw a high 99-mph fastball that blew Brignac away. Inning over.
And in the eighth, Bautista walked the leadoff man, only to strike out the next three batters. The last of them was Rhyne Hughes, who had extended his hitting streak to 12 games an inning prior after a long, patient at-bat. Hughes struck out in his other three appearances, and when Causey rang him up on another blazing, shin-high fastball from Bautista to end the eighth---Hughes, like Brignac, protested the call---the game seemed like it was over.
Jason Childers tossed a scoreless ninth, working around a fielding error by Chris Richard (a grounder took a bad hop and squirted through Richard's legs), but all that did was complete a great scoreless effort by the bullpen that was going to be wasted by the Bulls' suddenly anemic offense. It was so quiet in the ballpark by that time that when John Jaso trotted out to the mound for a quick conference with Childers, you could hear the clasps on his shin guards rattling.
Now: Chris Bootcheck, the Indians' closer, had pitched two nights in a row, and he was unavailable. Ditto Mike Koplove. Still, the Indians had other relievers they could have used, but apparently manager Frank Kremblas didn't want to use them. He stuck with Bautista, who was now up near 40 pitches. Leading off the ninth, Elliot Johnson waited out six pitches and got an infield single on the seventh when Indianapolis shortstop Argenis Diaz needed an extra step to get Johnson's slow grounder out of his glove, and Johnson beat the throw by a hair. That seemed like payback for a play early in the game, when first base umpire Al Porter ruled similarly in Jose Tabata's favor on a grounder. Chris Richard, who is so nice he could live on Sesame Street, was irate, and Charlie Montoyo was a few words away from getting ejected when he came out to protest the call.
But with Johnson on first, John Jaso lined a single to right, and suddenly there were runners at the corners and the tying run was at the plate in the form of Henry Mateo. Mateo was the first batter Bautista had faced, back in the seventh, and Bautista had walked him then. So Mateo, who is a peskily patient hitter to begin with, knew to be extra patient here, and he may also have known that Bautista is one of those millions of Triple-A relievers who throw hard and get lots of strikeouts but are unsuited for the majors because they issue too many walks (his lifetime major-league walk rate is 5BB/9IP). Ultimately Mateo was overmatched and struck out---he had little chance of doing much damage with Bautista's 94-mph fastballs---but he made Bautista use six more pitches, and in some ways Mateo's at-bat was the most important of the inning. Bautista was now over 50 pitches, and he was basically out of gas.
Desmond Jennings hit next. Perhaps sensing that Bautista had tired himself out and was at that point just throwing at his catcher, Jennings decided to use surprise tactics: he bunted. That shocked everyone in the ballpark---including Charlie Montoyo, who hadn't called for a bunt. And it was a beauty, rolling slowly down the first-base line. Bautista didn't get to it until the speedy Jennings was way down the line. Bautista didn't even make a throw, Jennings was safe, and Johnson scored from third.
6-4 Indians, and that was it for Bautista. Kremblas called on Juan Mateo, while Montoyo sent Ray Olmedo in to pinch-run for Jaso. The rest of the inning benefited from the previous night's ballpark visit by the clergy: Reid Brignac and Matt Joyce each hit the ball softly, but each got a single: Brignac poked an opposite-field flare over third base, and Joyce sneaked a 10-hopper wide of first and into right field. It was suddenly 6-6. Dieu Merci.
First and second now, still only one out, and Justin Ruggiano came to the plate. Ruggiano has had some big, late-inning and extra-inning hits this year, but he is also prone to striking out a lot. A whiff wouldn't have been ruinous here, because Chris Richard was waiting on deck. The only true killer would be a double play. Naturally, Ruggiano grounded Mateo's first pitch to shortstop for what should probably have been exactly that killer. But second baseman Brian Bixler's relay was offline---Joyce came barreling in on him---and it pulled first baseman Jeff Clement off the bag. Ruggiano was safe, and Reid Brignac never stopped as he reached third base. He saw Clement fail to reset himself quickly and charged home, waved around by Montoyo. Brignac beat Clement's throw to the plate by a step and suddenly the Bulls had another wild, comeback win.
It all happened so fast that the clubhouse was filled with chatter about what exactly had just taken place. There was Chris Richard, telling Reid Brignac about Bixler's errant throw on the very play on which Brignac himself had scored the winning run---Brignac, of course, couldn't see second base, running as he was toward third. Then Ruggiano came over and gave Brignac a big celebratory hug. Somehow, the Bulls had won.
And somehow they did it without Jon Weber, who had the night off. Go figure.
Charlie Montoyo will be flying home to Arizona not long after I post this report, in order to spend the off-day with his family (and especially his young son Alex, who is recovering well from his surgery). He told us that the win would make the plane ride a lot better. And you could feel a giddy, rowdy energy in the clubhouse: extra teasing and ribbing; a little more testosterone and profanity than usual; Julio DePaula and Henry Mateo happily playing cards; players making plans to get together during tomorrow's off-day. For the whole team, this was an invigorating way to go into a one-day break. Another loss, which would have meant losing the series to Indianapolis, would have been really deflating. Instead, the Bulls will be rested, loose and confident when the Syracuse Chiefs roll into town on Thursday for four games at the DBAP. Amazingly, although we're more than three quarters of the way through the season, the Bulls haven't played Syracuse yet. Ah, the minors...
A few notes:
* Jason Childers was credited with last night's win. It was his ninth, and it tied him again with Wade Davis for the team lead. Not bad for a reliever.
* As Chris Wise noted, head cocked in bemusement, over at WDBB, the Rays have approximately 741 catchers these days, and five of them are on the 40-man roster. That's sort of like having five corkscrews: you definitely cannot live without a corkscrew, and you should probably have two in case the first one breaks; but five? So it was both weird and inevitable that, in yet another Hudson Valley Three-Card-Monty shuffle, Craig Albernaz was added back onto the Bulls' roster yesterday. That gave the team three backstops. Turns out that Shawn Riggans tweaked his rib cage making a throw to second base on Monday and wasn't a go for Tuesday's game. He told me that he expected to be fine by Thursday, but he needed to take a day or two off and see how he felt. Riggans has really had a rough year. He just can't stay healthy. Meanwhile, Alex Jamieson keeps hanging around, now the fourth-string catcher in the Durham dugout (and 14th-string pitcher), and nowhere close to getting added back onto the roster from Hudson Valley barring a mass alien abduction or the September 1 roster expansion, whichever comes first. And even then, don't be too sure.
* Mitch Talbot is pitching way down in the Gulf Coast rookie league right now, so you figure he'll be back in Durham within a couple of weeks. Also, Fernando Perez is expected to begin a rehab assignment in Port Charlotte any day now, and he'll probably land in Durham soon as well. An outfield that has Perez and Desmond Jennings in it might as well have the entire population of Carrboro standing there with open gloves, too (OK, you can use your hula hoops if you want). It's going to be hard to hit the ball somewhere those two can't get to.
* Had a long talk with Joe Nelson, who was candid and humble about his demotion to Durham. It's late and I don't have time or stamina to go into great detail, but a few things jumped out: Nelson was quite aware that he wasn't pitching well, and he has labored mightily this season to identify and correct the problem. He seemed almost relieved to have been sent away to work on it. He didn't blame the Rays at all for sending him down to Durham, a place he is very familiar with: if he has the bad luck to pitch here again in 2010, he will have played for the Bulls in parts of three different decades. He also expressed rarely heard (or rarely genuine, anyway) team-first sentiment, knowing that a pennant race wasn't the context in which to sort out his problems. And during a three-day break at home before reporting to the DBAP, Nelson spotted the flaw while watching game film: his arm slot was too high, and consequently his wrist was pronating and his changeup was all wrong as a result, breaking vertically but not horizontally. Last night, Nelson suddenly---almost magically---found the proper slot again, and he's hopeful of repeating it. He reiterated that there's nothing physically wrong with his arm; it's entirely a mechanical issue. Nelson has been in professional baseball for 14 years and he has a mature, unselfish attitude toward his current circumstances. He knows you simply have to perform in order to pitch in the majors, and he hasn't done that this year. He seemed almost excited to get back out on the mound and do again what he did on Tuesday night. He felt so good that he asked Montoyo if he could go back out for his second inning of work, which hadn't been in Montoyo's plans. All told, Nelson threw 25 pitches.
Enjoy the day off. The Bulls and, presumably, Carlos Hernandez host the Syracuse Chiefs Thursday night.