by Adam Sobsey
"The Bulls lead the league in home runs but haven’t hit one in 19 innings. They’ll hit a bunch soon, I promise. Dale Thayer will reel off a few scoreless appearances in a row."
The idea there was that, in order for the Bulls to start winning again, those things would have to happen. Well, the Bulls have won two in a row since then, and they've done it by hitting exactly one home run (a solo shot by Chris Richard on Tuesday) and getting another ragged outing from Dale Thayer, who has allowed five runs in his last 9 1/3 innings.
I guess I should have cut straight to the two sentences that followed the ones I ought to have deleted:
The Bulls will drive in a bunch of runners in scoring position. And Jon Weber will keep hitting doubles, just like he did again last night.
Guess what? I'm not entirely a quack after all. The Bulls went 4-8 last night with RISP (and are 8 for their last 20 over their last two games), and Jon Weber hit yet another double. He upped his league-leading total to 38. And so the Bulls ducked a late rally last night and beat the Syracuse Chiefs, 5-3. With Gwinnett's loss at Toledo, the Bulls have first place all to themselves again.
Carlos Hernandez consumed most of his helping of pitches quickly last night, chewing up 31 of his 68 in the first inning even though he faced only five batters. Hernandez went to three-ball counts on four of those five, walked two of them, and allowed a run without giving up a hit. (As it turned out, Hernandez departed after four innings with a miniature no-hitter, letting three men reach base via walks.) He wasn't close to his sharpest, but he kept the Chiefs from hitting the ball hard off of him.
It ought to be said that Syracuse doesn't have a very intimidating lineup. You won't find many of their guys among the league leaders in many categories. One you would have, All-Star first baseman Jorge Padilla, was hitting a league-leading .367 before his callup to Washington a few days ago. The Nationals replaced him with late-model slugger Daryle Ward, whom they picked up just yesterday and sent to Durham, otherwise all those throws to first on infield grounders would have sailed into the stands. (Oddly, the Chiefs just played Ward's former team, Charlotte, last weekend; I guess they liked what they saw.) The Chiefs second-best hitter, Brad Eldred, who is tied for the team lead in homers, has missed almost three weeks with an injury.
That leaves Seth Bynum and Justin Maxwell as the team's biggest threats. Bynum bats eighth, for some reason, in manager Tim Foli's lineup, even though he's tied with Eldred for the team lead in homers; and Maxwell, a tall, athletic center fielder, strikes out about every third at-bat. (He added another last night; for his part, Bynum was called out on strikes three times. They combined to go 1-7 with an infield single.)
So there's every reason to think that the Bulls, whose pitching staff has lately gotten tricked out with high-end, after-market parts, should be able to make the Chiefs into sitting
Bulls ducks. And that's more or less what they did last night, with one exception. After Hernandez stumbled through his first inning, he recovered and picked his way through the Chiefs lineup without allowing another run. He then turned the ball over to Joe Bateman.
Charlie Montoyo told us after the game that the roles are shifting in the bullpen. Joe Nelson, just down from Tampa, and Winston Abreu, who arrives tomorrow after having re-upped with the Rays, will be pushing guys like Bateman and Julio DePaula into earlier-inning appearances. The Bulls are about to have a loaded bullpen, with four pitchers in it who ought to feel very comfortable closing games: Nelson, Abreu, Jason Childers and Dale Thayer. (For what it's worth, Calvin Medlock, who is so low on the depth chart that he's currently in the Hudson Valley satellite lot, had 13 saves for Double-A Montgomery before he was promoted to Durham in early June.) The rest of the relievers will, for the most part, need to keep from getting their feathers ruffled and accept lower-leverage roles.
Nonetheless, mid-game though it was, Bateman's work last night was key. When he came on to start the fifth inning, the Bulls led 2-1. Bateman threw two scoreless innings, pitching around a single by Jhonatan [sic] Solano in the sixth. By the time he left, the game had reached its initial, seventh-inning descent and the Bulls had added three runs on a pond-full-of-ducks double by Justin Ruggiano. Bateman got the win.
But his successors made it interesting, a reminder that one thing you can count on is that the Bulls will always be uncomfortable with a comfortable lead, and will take decisive steps to narrow it. (The Bulls have the league's best record---37-24---in games decided by one or two runs, and only Indianapolis has played more close ones.) Another thing you could count on was that Jason Childers's superhuman scoreless streak would come to an end sooner or later. He finally allowed a run last night---the first he's given up in his last eight appearances---although it wasn't entirely his fault. He worked around a one-out double in the seventh inning, but after he fanned Ian Desmond to start the eighth, Pete Orr slashed a ball to right field. Justin Ruggiano, playing there last night (the incumbent, Matt Joyce, was in left field---for "player development," Charlie Montoyo told us), didn't exactly race over to it, and the ball rolled under his glove and all the way to the wall. It could conceivably have been scored an error, although Ruggiano didn't touch the ball. In any case, Orr had a triple on what should have been a double---and, not unthinkably, merely a single had Ruggiano made a clean play and come up firing to hold Orr at first.
Montoyo came out and got Childers. Dale Thayer and his re-grown mustache came in. Thayer hadn't pitched since Saturday, when he threw a pair of scoreless innings that were a little more dangerous than the record shows. He looked rusty last night, and played ducks and drakes with the endangered lead he inherited. Justin Maxwell reached on an infield hit---not Thayer's fault at all---to score Orr (that's known as "scOrr," technically). Kory Casto and Mike Morse then smacked hard singles to right, and suddenly it was 5-3. Joe Nelson hopped up and started warming in the bullpen. Daryle Ward then hit a hot grounder on Thayer's 0-1 pitch---right at Henry Mateo, who looked kind of wobbly in the field all night but managed to start a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning. Slightly luckier placement for Ward would have resulted in a base hit, a 5-4 game, still one out and runners on the corners.
Thayer let all of that roll off of his back, though, and he was much better in the ninth, getting a pair of called strikeouts and then inducing Solano to ground out weakly and end the game. I suspect he's close to getting his ducks in a row again. I thought that Thayer came on in a save situation last night, but he wasn't credited with one. I may have misunderstood the save rule, although I thought that if it looked like a save and walked like a save, it was a save.
Oh, that Justin Ruggiano! The Roodge went 2-4 with four RBIs, but he always seems to find a way to scuff up his work somehow. It was that lazily-played ball to right last night. The other day, he went 3-4 with a pair of doubles, but his baserunning brownout helped cost the Bulls the game. The day after that, he misplayed a ball off of the Blue Monster for a triple, and then later, in a key ninth-inning moment, hit a grounder that should have been an asphyxiating double play---but got lucky when it turned into the game-winning error. (The Bulls' efforts to get that scoring call changed to a fielder's choice and an RBI for Ruggiano were unsuccessful.) He's so frustrating to watch because he's so often right on the edge of being a complete player. I can't help rooting for him to put it all together, even though there are times when he doesn't appear to be trying to put it all together.
Some notes, mostly about the roster:
* Rhyne Hughes had the night off last night. I presume that was simply a scheduling rotation thing on Charlie Montoyo's part, because Hughes is riding a 12-game hitting streak during which he is hitting over .500. I discovered, however, in passing, that it may not be entirely correct to say---as I did the other day---that Hughes's streak stands alone as the longest by a Bull this season. From June 16-28, Justin Ruggiano hit safely in twelve straight games in which he had a plate appearance. The streak was interrupted on June 23, when he pinch-
waddledran for John Jaso in the ninth inning of the Bulls' 11-10 loss at Toledo and was lifted immediately afterward. Just thought I'd mention it.
* Shawn Riggans is still out with a balky rib-cage (maybe he should just wrap it in duck tape, ha ha). He remains day-to-day. The Bulls kind of need him to get better, because more roster changes are forthcoming that ought to affect Craig Albernaz, whom the Bulls are carrying as a precaution until Riggans's green light comes back on. Winston Abreu reports tomorrow, and it seems like Albernaz could easily be shoved back over to the Hudson Valley end of the dugout to make room for him. If Riggans still can't play, then some other, less convenient move will have to be made.
* It's also possible that we'll see someone released or demoted. After last night's game, I was going to ask Charlie Montoyo whether Reid Brignac's absence from the lineup owed to anything other than a scheduled day off. Brignac was wearing a big, bandage-wrapped ice pack on his wrist after Tuesday's win. He told me it was just "sore," but ballplayers never tell you what's really wrong. And it made no sense to give the Rays' top infield prospect a rest after the whole team had had a day off on Wednesday. But before I could ask Montoyo about Brignac, pitching coach Xavier Hernandez burst into the office and shooed us out: "We got business to do!" he quacked. Hernandez hadn't interrupted one of our postgame interviews with Montoyo all year, so I couldn't help wondering whether a more urgent personnel issue was
We'll find out before game time tonight, of course. Jason Cromer on the mound for Durham against the Chiefs' Shairon Martis. Martis, an up-and-coming 22-year-old righty from Curacao, started 15 games for the Nationals earlier this season and should be a handful for the Bulls' lineup. But if the newly-reinforced pitching staff does what it's capable of, the batters might not need to do too much. Wouldn't that be ducky?