by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---After the Syracuse Chiefs squelched the Bulls on Saturday night, holding them to two unearned runs and four hits, manager Charlie Montoyo was disgusted by his team's hitting. "Our approach wasn't good," Montoyo said, which is managerspeak for something like, "we really stunk." But he also insisted that his team would keep working.
Whatever they did on Sunday before they trounced Syracuse, 11-5 behind Andy Sonnanstine (pictured), they should keep doing it. You have to go back to June 27 to find a game in which the Bulls scored that many runs; in fact, they hadn't scored more than seven in a game since July 12, nearly a month ago. That was also the last day on which the Bulls had beaten anyone by more than four runs. In Sunday's romp, they set a season high with 18 hits. Chris Richard hit his 20th home run, Jon Weber whacked his 40th (!) double, and the Bulls batted .375 with runners in scoring position. They scored eight of their runs with two outs. Power hitting, clutch hitting, hits strung together (in one stretch, 10 of 13 straight batters hit safely), a pair of bunt singles, only five strikeouts (two after the second inning): this was a show of total, explosive force.
After the game, the first question posed to Montoyo was: "Did you take extra batting practice today?" His response: "We didn't take extra batting practice." What did the Bulls do, then, to manufacture such an outburst? "Just show up and play," he said.
The Bulls looked like they might be asleep at the wheel again early on last night. Syracuse starter Ross Detwiler, who is the Washington Nationals' top pitching prospect, pitched around Elliot Johnson's bunt single in the first inning, striking out Matt Joyce and Justin Ruggiano looking to end the inning. The Bulls got a run in the second off of Detwiler, but it came on a pair of cheap infield hits, a walk and an error. Durham should have had two runs in the inning, but Jon Weber reintroduced the S.B.G. to the team's repertoire of betises by getting picked off of first base.
You could say, perhaps, that that unearned run was the pinprick that heralded the bloodbath to come, but Elliot Johnson pointed to something else after the game. The first thing he mentioned when asked about the avalanche was Desmond Jennings, who was back in the lineup after missing two days with a sore shoulder. This seemed like odd praise, because Jennings was the only Bull without a hit in the game. He was 0-4 with a strikeout and a double play. But Johnson noted that Jennings had seen a lot of pitches early (13 in his first two at-bats, to be precise). "It's the leadoff man's job to see some pitches and let everybody know what [the opposing starter] is gonna be like."
Sure enough, the second and third time through the order, the Bulls teed off on Detwiler, and he was done after 3 2/3 innings, having thrown 93 pitches. Of the 10 hits he allowed, two were infield bleeders and one was Johnson's bunt, but the fact was that the Bulls were probably overdue for one of those games in which it didn't matter where they hit the ball; it was going to find a good spot. Even Pete Orr's fielding error in the third inning was on a ball that took a bad hop and banged off his shoulder and into left field. He threw up his hands in exasperation. At that point, although the Chiefs still led, 2-1, you got the sense that they knew it was going to be a rough night. And it was.
A little momentum shifter: The Bulls led 3-2 after Richard's third-inning homer, but the Chiefs put two men on with one out in the fourth. At that moment, the game was threatening to turn into one of those raging slugfests that take 3:30 to play and burn through a dozen pitchers, and I started buckling myself in for it. Seth Bynum then hit a grounder in the shortstop hole that looked like it was going to sneak into left field for a base hit and cause a major jam. But Elliot Johnson, spelling Reid Brignac at shortstop (Brignac missed two games in this series, hmmm), ranged to his right, fielded the ball, and threw to second to force out Daryle Ward---who, it should be said, runs about as fast as a push mower. Still, Johnson had the presence of mind to know that his only potential out was at second base, and he didn't hesitate to bid for it. (Johnson mentions working on his fielding in this recent profile.)
The next batter, Ian Desmond, hit a lively bouncer up the middle, and Johnson made a fine and very smooth catch going to his left---it was harder than it looked---and flipped to second for another force, this one ending the inning. Had Johnson failed to convert either of those chances, the Chiefs would have probably had the lead, and you might be reading a very different game report. But with their lead intact, the Bulls added three runs in the bottom of the fourth. The first of them scored on a single by, who else, Elliot Johnson. Chris Richard was tapped for the "Star of the Game" on-field interview after the Bulls won, but for my money Johnson was the best choice. He was 3-5 with a double and three RBIs to go along with his excellent work in the field behind Andy Sonnanstine.
The rout didn't come quite as easily as it might appear, though. The Bulls were up 8-2 after adding two more runs in the fifth inning, but they simply weren't going to put the game to sleep: don't forget that this was a team that had seen 25 of its last 30 games decided by one or two runs. It was no surprise that by the seventh-inning stretch Syracuse had cut the lead to 8-4. One thing you have to say about the Chiefs: they fight. They don't have a fearsome lineup, their pitching is only average, and their fielding wasn't airtight in this series---plus they belong to the Nationals (yes, I know the Nats have won eight in a row; they're still the worst team in baseball)---but they fight. "They're just like us," Elliot Johnson said. Even their manager, Tim Foli, was still advocating for his team after the game was over, trying to persuade the official scorer to change an error to a hit.
Had Andy Sonnanstine not had to face Chiefs' first baseman Mike Morse, he would have had a great night. As it was, Morse tagged him for a long, head-turning, opposite field homer in the second inning, and would have had another one had he hit his third-inning missile in any park in the league other than the one that has the Blue Monster in it. As it was, he had to settle for one of the most impressive singles I've ever seen. Sonnanstine wisely pitched around Morse in the sixth and walked him, but Morse then advanced and scored on a pair of singles. Otherwise, Sonnanstine did his thing, mixing speeds and locations, and occasionally showing unusual velocity on his fastball, which touched an uncharacteristic 92 mph a couple of times. He was overall happy with his performance, especially after the first couple of innings, when he struggled (he told us) with his command.
Sonnanstine is always going to give up a lot of hits. He doesn't miss bats often, a tendency he exhibited in extremis on Sunday night. He produced only two swings-and-misses, and both of those were by Justin Maxwell during his fifth-inning strikeout. (Getting Maxwell to swing and miss is like getting Joyce Carol Oates to write a novel. He's the league's most Reliant K.) I'm not sold on Sonnanstine's high-contact style; it seems to me that you have to miss more bats, not so much for the sake of strikeouts as for evidence that you're sufficiently disrupting hitters' timing. Most days you'll take the ol' "quality start" (especially if you have a good bullpen), but as I said yesterday, a quality start is really just an average one.
What's making Sonnanstine a success right now is his outstanding walk rate: just six in 39 innings pitched for the Bulls. If he can maintain that clip, the hits won't hurt him too much. Perhaps the reason Sonnanstine was struggling in Tampa this season had less to do with any serious deficiency than with simply being a bit unluckier and a bit less accurate (both will befall every pitcher at times, even great ones) than he was in 2008. He walked 22 in 81 2/3 innings with the Rays until his demotion, and he allowed 15 homers---by contrast, he gave up 21 in 193 1/3 innings all of last year. The Rays sent him down to Durham with a couple of specific homework assignments (improve slider, pitch right-handers inside), but I'm not sure he wouldn't have shown signs of improvement in the majors by simply throwing more innings there. Unfortunately, major-league teams don't really have the luxury of riding out the struggles of young starters, especially when there are other candidates ready to hand. If nothing else, Sonnanstine should be regaining confidence down in Durham as his success here reminds him that he can get good hitters out on regular basis. He's got enough pitching savvy to sustain big-league success, it seems to me.
Burgeoning bullpen worry: Dale Thayer still hasn't worked his way through his own recent funk. Thayer relieved Winston Abreu with two outs and no one on in the eighth, and immediately gave up a double. (I'd have to run through a lot of box scores to verify this, but my memory tells me that Thayer has started four or five appearances with an extra-base hit this season.) Jhonatan Solano, that pesky, .180-hitting, strangely-spelled thorn in the Bulls' side, singled to left to score a run, and when Norris Hopper followed with an infield single, Thayer looked quite annoyed. Mike Vento then smacked a line drive right at Elliot Johnson to end the inning. Thayer fanned Justin Maxwell to start the ninth, but then came another infield hit, followed by a wild pitch. Charlie Montoyo was taking no chances: he got Joe Nelson up and warming in the bullpen. With a six-run lead, this was probably quite unnecessary, and despite Montoyo's display of unconcern for Thayer's slump after the game ("He'll get out of it," Montoyo said, twice), ordering Nelson to start throwing showed a slight lack of confidence in Thayer. But perhaps Thayer saw Nelson getting loose out in right field: he struck out Mike Morse and slugger Daryle Ward to end the game, fooling Ward with a sweet 82-mph changeup for the last pitch. Ward swung right over it.
(For his part, Abreu allowed a run in 1 2/3 innings, but let the record show that what he really allowed was a 120-foot bloop single, a stolen base, and an infield nubber that Chris Richard threw away to score the run. The run became earned when Kory Casto followed with what would probably have been a sacrifice fly.)
One player note: Carlos Hernandez may not be able to make his next start, which is scheduled for Tuesday night. According to Montoyo, the problem isn't Hernandez's bionic shoulder but one of his fingers. The Bulls may deploy a bullpen committee that night.
The Bulls' team bus is currently plunging through the tiny hours down toward Gwinnett County, GA, where they play four games with the Braves, whom they lead by a game in the International League South Division. More hot weather is expected down there on Monday, and Charlie Montoyo isn't scheduling any on-field bating practice for fear of wearing his hitters out before the game starts. "Guess what we're doing tomorrow?" Montoyo said last night as he looked ahead to the first game against Gwinnett (Jeremy Hellickson starts for Durham). "We're gonna show up and play." And why not? It worked great the first time.