by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees have some big dudes on their team. Shelley Duncan: 6-foot-5, 225 pounds. Chris Stewart: 6-foot-4, 210 (that's really tall for a catcher). Their starter last night, Ivan Nova: 6-foot-4, 210. They have another starting pitcher who is 6-foot-8, 250, and two relievers who between them are nearly 13 feet tall and weigh 520 pounds. And these are all official, listed weights. You probably know what that means.
The Bulls, by contrast, got littler. Rehabbing second baseman Akinori Iwamura, who made his first appearance last night, is 5-foot-9, although he is deceptively stout at 200 pounds. Iwamura's presence temporarily pushed Henry Mateo to left field. The Zampano-like Jon Weber (5-foot-10, 190; only one of those numbers is correct) usually plays there, but Mateo is much slighter. He's listed, rather optimistically, at six feet tall. If that's his actual height, and if Ray Olmedo, who played third base on Friday, is 5-foot-11, then I am pleased to discover that I'm 6-foot-2 and never realized it all these years. Cool!
The size contrast between the Yankees and the Bulls showed last night in more ways than one. For one thing, it seemed appropriate that the Sumo wrestling diversion between innings ended in the season's first tie; you just couldn't ignore those two fat-suited contestants. But the main evidence of the weight on the field was the score, and it wasn't anything like a tie: the Yankees flattened the Bulls, 9-5. Durham fell two games behind Gwinnett, which beat Pawtucket.
Speaking of heavy, the Yankees' contingent turned out in full force, crowding the third-base dugout in their Derek Jeter jerseys and other Yankee apparel. I really like it when Scranton visits, because the Yankee demographic brings not only crowd density but esprit de corps to the DBAP. Say what you like about baseball's Evil Empire, their fans represent wherever their tentacles reach. And so last night's game had a little extra mustard on it right from the get-go.
That was true not only of the ambient energy---and speaking of heavy, a leaden and waterlogged sky dominated early but gave way to a shockingly breezy, cool night at the DBAP---but of the game itself. Kevin Russo blasted Andy Sonnanstine's third pitch (on an 0-2 count) off the Blue Monster way over in left-center field. It caromed toward Desmond Jennings, who spent some time fluffing it out there, and by the time he threw in to the infield, Russo was on third. He scored when the next batter, Colin Curtis, grounded out to first. (The box score fails to indicate, by the way, that the run charged to Sonnanstine in the first inning was unearned.)
In the bottom of the first inning, the 22-year-old Dominican Ivan Nova, whom the Bulls beat in Scranton on July 30 (they scored six runs in seven innings off of him), helped load the bases with a pair of walks. With two outs, Rhyne Hughes singled a run home, and then Ray Olmedo got credit for a second RBI on a weird play. He hit a fairly routine grounder to shortstop, but Cody Ransom was a bit cavalier with it and second baseman Russo was a little late getting over to second, where Ransom had apparently chosen to go for the flip force-out rather than throw out Olmedo at first. Hughes beat the throw and everyone was safe, including Iwamura, who scored. It seemed like an error needed to be charged on the play, since all Olmedo received credit for was a fielder's choice and certainly Nova did his job by getting an easy grounder; but the substitute official scorer let it stand as-is.
The Bulls left the bases loaded but led 2-1 after one inning. Then the Yankees got heavy. They went all bad-cop on Sonnanstine in the third inning, getting six hits, and all of them were hit hard. Even the last out of the inning was a fly ball to the left-field wall. When it was all over, five runs had scored and a dejected Sonnanstine trudged back to the dugout. He gave up another run in the fourth on Austin Jackson's triple. Jackson was standing on third base around the time the relay throw arrived in the infield; he's incredibly fast. What's surprising about Scranton is that some of the players have great speed to complement the team's overall size.
Sonnanstine retired the last three batters he faced, two on swinging strikeouts, but in one ruinous stretch eight of twelve batters hit safely against him. Some of Sonnanstine's peripherals were actually quite good: he struck out five in five innings and produced, by my count, 11 swings-and-misses among his 92 pitches. (The pitch count in the box score, by the way, is incorrect.) Given the positive signs in his outing, at first I found myself wondering if the problem was simply that he matches up poorly with a team like the Yankees: he's nearly always around the plate, and the Yankees looked really good hitting strikes early in the count last night. Sonnanstine went to only one three-ball count and walked no one. But then I remembered that he pitched a great game up in Scranton just over two weeks ago. That lineup had seven of the same players in it as last night's, and Sonnanstine went eight strong innings, giving up two runs.
So it could have been a case of a bunch of hitters figuring out a pitcher, or a pitcher just having an off-night. Charlie Montoyo was also surprised and at a loss to explain ("I've had Sonny for three years now; you don't see that very often"); Sonnanstine himself was gone before I had a chance to interview him---and perhaps he wouldn't have been too excited for that anyway---but I haven't been able to piece together exactly what went wrong for him. I would have asked pitching coach Xavier Hernandez for his thoughts, but Hernandez doesn't say much to the media unless he's having fun mock-harassing us---he's the comic heavy on the coaching staff. Last night, he walked into Charlie Montoyo's office while Montoyo was answering a question about whether he knew what the exact rehab plans were for Akinori Iwamura, and after Montoyo finished his answer (in short, those plans are well thought out: "I got a map," Montoyo said), Hernandez grinned and offered: "Or he coulda said, 'Yeah, I know, but if I wanted y'all to know, I'd send y'all the [deleted] email.'" (The "Comments" section of the blog is also a good way to reach me. Thanks.)
As for Iwamura, not too much to say about his night. He played a scheduled five innings at second base and handled only two chances. In the second inning, he raced into foul territory to catch Yurendell de Caster's pop-up. It would have been easier for first baseman Chris Richard to handle, but Iwamura really went after it---and I guess Iwamura might as well be allowed to make as many plays as he can, since he hasn't played baseball since May. In the third inning, he snared Chris Stewart's line drive. He also did something in that inning that he probably couldn't repeat if he tried: his relay throw to home plate on Austin Jackson's double hit Jackson's bat on the fly, just in front of home plate; that coincidence allowed Jackson to advance to third base. Iwamura had no ground-ball chances last night. He'll DH on Saturday for the whole game.
The Bulls made this game interesting, as they nearly always do, cutting a 7-2 deficit to 7-5 as they hit Nova around in the fourth and fifth innings. Jon Weber, who was promoted to cleanup in reward for his current hot streak, responded with his 42nd double (he also walked and singled; can I have some of Weber's gum, please?); and the Bulls were gifted another fielding miscue by the Scranton infield---this time, Kevin Russo simply dropped a ground ball he had basically already caught, hit once again by Ray Olmedo. Nova was imploding (sorry, had to use that) right along with Sonnanstine. After five innings, the two teams had combined for 20 hits and 12 runs. It seemed like we might have a very long game ahead of us.
But Yankees' reliever Zach Kroenke shortened it up, slapping the Bulls around and getting a quick surrender. He was dominant in relief of Nova, retiring all eight Bulls he faced, including four by strikeout. Matt Joyce, who replaced Iwamura in the lineup, got into a meaty pitch from Kroenke and flied out to deep center field, but otherwise Kroenke totally shut the game down: very heavy. He wound up with a much-deserved win.
Fortunately for the Bulls, Calvin Medlock kept the Yankees from doing more damage. Medlock started in place of Carlos Hernandez on Tuesday and was pretty effective over 57 pitches, limiting the Gwinnett Braves to one run in three innings. On Friday, he threw 36 more pitches and held Scranton scoreless for two innings. Medlock pitched out of a minor jam in the seventh inning, nearly inducing a triple play (!). With men on first and second and no outs, Yurendell de Caster hit exactly the ball Medlock needed: a quick grounder right to Ray Olmedo at third base. As soon as de Caster hit it, I yelled, "Triple play!" Olmedo stepped on third and made a strong throw to second, but Henry Mateo's relay to first was a little soft and de Caster beat it by a half-step.
You should have seen (or maybe you did see) the Bulls' reaction: they knew de Caster was safe, but they were all hopping around with big grins on their faces, like kids who just barely missed sliding a quarter into the red circle in that midway game at the State Fair. I thought Jason Cromer might hurt himself in the dugout with all the bouncing around he was doing.
The Bulls rumbled a bit against the Yankees' rehabbing lefthander Damaso Marte in the eighth, putting the first two men on via singles. Craig Albernaz pinch-ran for John Jaso at second base, making the Bulls yet smaller; Albernaz is listed at 5-foot-8, which he could very well be with his spikes on. (Having said that, I should add that Albernaz is probably the Bull I would most want on my side in a fight, along with Elliot Johnson.) But with the Bulls threatening to charge, Marte retired the next three hitters, so flummoxing Matt Joyce with two outs that Joyce hit the ball twice accidentally on check swings. The first went foul; the second resulted in a tapper back to Marte near the mound. Joyce trotted down the first-base line---the sort of meretricious loafing for which players are sometimes benched---and Marte could almost have walked the ball to the bag himself. Instead, he lobbed an underhand rainbow to first baseman Juan Miranda.
But there was nothing parabolic about the hit Miranda had off of Winston Abreu in the top of the ninth. After Cody Ransom bashed a Blue Monster Special (read: a single) to start the inning, Miranda walloped Abreu's next pitch---a 92-mph fastball right down the middle---about ten or so rows back in the Diamond Vision seats. It left the park so fast that there was scant time to admire it. It was as if it had been hit with a ten-pound bat swung by an ogre. As Charlie Montoyo put it, "They crushed us today."
Winston is getting smoked since his return to Durham. He has given up 11 runs all season, and six of them have come in his last three outings. After allowing one home run in his first 25 games this season, he has served up three to his last eight batters. "I'm gonna keep sending him out there, because you know what he can do," Montoyo said. "He was our MVP in the first half." The Bulls probably need him to regain his form in order to make the playoffs, especially with Dale Thayer also undergoing some mysterious performance malady.
And after Abreu's ninth-inning struggles, the heaviest of the Scranton heavies, Jonathan Albaladejo, came in and slammed the door. With the Bulls down to their last strike, a fan finally thought to start a "We hate Yan-kees!" cheer. He got a smattering of joiners, but Albaladejo suffocated the protest. He made Ray Olmedo look foolish with his diving breaking ball three straight times; on the last one, Olmedo swung over it for the final out even though it was probably almost two feet away from the strike zone. You could practically see the interrogation light-bulb swinging on its cord, and the cigarette burning itself out in a tin ashtray.
Some roster notes:
*Michel Hernandez joined the team last night, although he didn't play. The Bulls now have four catchers; expect that to change very soon. Joe Dillon was also added to the roster, but he wasn't in uniform---or was he? "Dillon's here," Montoyo said, then clarified: "Well, not here. Yeah, he's not here. Tomorrow he'll be here for sure. You know what I'm saying." (I do?) Montoyo's Ionescan description of the Dillon situation summarized the chaos of the Bulls roster as a whole. And don't look now, but Montoyo told us that Fernando Perez, who is rehabbing down in Florida with Port Charlotte, may join the Bulls next week.
Also, Tampa scribes are reporting that reliever Jeff Bennett has been sent down to Durham in order to make room for Chad Bradford, who is finishing up his second injury rehab assignment of the season (and will apparently be skipping another tour of duty with the Bulls). Bennett has struggled since the Rays plucked him away from the Atlanta Braves, so maybe he'll spend some quality time hanging out with fellow down-from-Tampa struggler Joe Nelson. Also, the same St. Petersburg Times is hinting that Reid Brignac will be called up to replace Pat Burrell, who is hurt again. I guess the Rays plan to use Ben Zobrist and Willy Aybar in Burrell's DH slot, necessitating an additional middle infielder. Too bad Jon Weber isn't on the 40-man roster; he could DH.
"Honestly, I like it when people get called up," Montoyo said; he likes developing new players and helping them succeed, and you can see his enthusiasm for it in his eyes and hear it in his voice. "But there's too many pieces," he said of the current roster (which has not just four catchers but five middle infielders; kind of a blessing if Brignac is recalled), before adding, "That's okay, because we're here to serve our big-league club. But if I'm talking Bulls," he conceded, "it's tough."
That comment led to Montoyo's explicit acknowledgment, his first the season, that he can't really manage his team as such, on a game-to-game, win-first basis. The results of his work are intended for another level; immediate dividends at the DBAP are just a bonus. Guys are learning on the job. That's why Andy Sonnanstine is left on the mound to get hammered for 11 hits in five innings; that's why Henry Mateo starts a game in left field to accommodate Akinori Iwamura. That's also why---alas, Bulls fans!---the rooting you do has to be forgetful, all-embracing, unconcerned with outcomes, and free of attachments. You have to practice Buddhist fandom. "That's why we love this game," Montoyo concluded. "Because you never know."
You certainly don't. Nonetheless, the Bulls will try to flip the heavies again on Saturday. Jeremy Hellickson is on the mound against Kei Igawa, whose scheduled Friday start was pushed back a day due to rain in Scranton. I probably shouldn't wonder this in print, but will Igawa and Iwamura bow to one another when Iwamura bats?