by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---A few days ago, Bulls right fielder Matt Joyce lost a fly ball in the lights, but finally spotted it just in time to make the catch. After the game, he talked about the helpless feeling that overcomes an outfielder when that happens, and he recalled a similar play in the majors last year, when he lost a ball hit by the Twins' Joe Mauer in the notorious Bermuda Triangle of the Minneapolis Metrodome's lights and ceiling. He happened to spot it at the very last moment and leaped to spear it for an out. Fortunately, it seems like more often than not, the ball eventually emerges from the white-out and gets caught.
In the fifth inning of last night's 9-3 loss to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, the Bulls were already in a deep hole, down 7-0. But somehow the game seemed closer than that. Bulls starter Jason Cromer had struggled from the very first batter of the game, getting tagged for three runs in the first inning, but he actually didn't look all that bad over the next three-plus innings. Although he had trouble hitting his spots, and kept working long at-bats, he might have gotten through the fifth without allowing any more runs to score but for some bad luck and some worse fielding (partly his own). Instead, he gave up an unearned run in the second inning and another in the fourth. But after that, he recovered and retired the next six Yankees. By the end of five innings, he had thrown 99 pitches, and it was the perfect time for Charlie Montoyo to take him out of the game.
But it was quite obvious that Cromer was staying in. Why? Because the Durham bullpen is once again ragged with overuse, and Montoyo has been forced to ride his starters a little longer than usual. On Friday night, Montoyo felt compelled to leave Andy Sonnanstine on the mound to get battered for 11 hits and seven runs in five innings. The next night, he left Jeremy Hellickson in for an extra couple of batters in another bullpen-preservation attempt, and it cost Hellickson a run when he allowed a home run to John Rodriguez. Then, on Sunday, Carlos Hernandez missed his second straight start with a wrist injury, and Montoyo had to call on reliever Joe Bateman for a 54-pitch, 3 1/3-inning spot start; after Bateman, three other relievers burned up ample pitches to close out the game.
So when Cromer ran into immediate first-inning trouble last night, we in the press box were already wondering aloud how Montoyo would manage his pitching staff for the rest of the evening. It was clear that Jason Childers, Julio DePaula and Dale Thayer were available, but I felt compelled to add that if the game got out of hand, we'd see Craig Albernaz, the Bulls' little-used fourth(!)-string catcher. Montoyo had revealed in a side comment a few nights ago that Albernaz might have to do some mop-up work in support of the short-handed bullpen (Jeff Bennett, recently demoted from Tampa, hasn't arrived in Durham yet); and although he said that with a a smirk on his face, I could tell that what he didn't want to have to admit was that he wasn't really kidding.
So: Cromer takes the mound again in the top of the sixth on Monday, trailing 5-0, and I'm thinking, uh-oh.
What I couldn't have known was that I should perhaps have been thinking uh-oh on someone else's behalf.
Cromer allows singles to the first two men he faces, and Montoyo still doesn't take him out. It's clear that he's going to squeeze every last allowable pitch he can out of the big lefty. Cromer falls behind Colin Curtis, 2-0, but then Curtis grounds out, advancing the runners to second and third. Now Montoyo pulls Cromer, just before Cromer can get to the maximum 110 pitches. His night ends at 108.
Julio DePaula enters the game, and Austin Jackson smacks his first pitch into left field for a two-run single. 7-0. Then DePaula walks Shelley Duncan.
The game should seem like it's over now, but oddly, it doesn't. Although the Bulls have been blanked by Scranton starter Josh Towers---yet another major-league retread the Yankees are kicking---Towers hasn't been anything like brilliant. He's given up a bunch of loud outs, including a pair of hard-hit balls that would have scored runs but instead went right at fielders and ended a pair of rallies. Through four innings---the last of which ended with Ray Olmedo flying out to the right-field wall, he hasn't made the Bulls look confused or off-balance. It seems only a matter of time before they solve him.
And so although it is 7-0, I've learned by now never to count the Bulls out, especially when they sense an opening somewhere. They rallied from 8-1 down in May and beat Louisville in the Richard's-two-grand-slams game. In June, they scored four runs in the top of the ninth and stunned Pawtucket, 5-4.
DePaula strikes out Juan Miranda looking for the second out of the inning. Up steps Yurendell de Caster. De Caster looks at ball one, and then hits an arcing looper to right-center field. It's an easy play for Justin Ruggiano, who is playing right field, which is usually Matt Joyce's domain.
Ruggiano drifts over. And then loses the ball in the lights.
Ruggiano never finds it. Two-run single. 9-0. Can we go home now?
Nope. There's no mercy rule in baseball.
Naturally, Weeble Josh Towers rolls from there, even though his successors out of the Yankees' bullpen cough up a few runs just to make the Bulls feel a bit better about themselves. Then, in the ninth, it's Albernaz time. The 5-foot-8 catcher with the awesome Fall River, Mass. accent trots to the mound, casually winds up, and throws fastballs, nothing but fastballs. Three of them hit 89 mph on the stadium gun. That's two miles per hour faster than Jason Childers's fastball. I make a point to tease Childers about it after the game. (Childers takes the ribbing admirably; also, I had a good convo with him about his appearance last night and his general approach, but I'm going to table that for another time.)
Now: in a 9-2 game (the Bulls had scored twice in the eighth without getting a hit: two walks, hit batter, wild pitch, passed ball), immediately followed by a long overnight bus ride back to Scranton after a three-city, 10-day road trip, the Yankees are probably not swinging all that hard against Albernaz. They know the honor code that governs this situation: the fourth-string catcher tosses his batting-practice fastballs over the plate, and the Yankees politely put them in play so someone can catch them. Still, it's as likely as not that at least one of these well-met-hale-fellow balls will land where no fielder is, or that a batter will accidentally ram one off the Blue Monster or something. And anyway, Albernaz is throwing 89 mph. Not exactly BP-velocity.
All of which is to say that Craig Albernaz, no matter how you want to look at it, retired the big-bat Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees in order in the top of the ninth, whereupon Alby was warmly welcomed back to the dugout by his smiling teammates.
Oddly, in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees sent out an Alby of their own: Jonathan Albaladejo, who tossed a scoreless, one-hit ninth against the Bulls on Friday night. And Yankees-Alby gave up a long homer to Chris Richard and then put two more men on base via singles before finally putting an end to what, in retrospect, in the cold light of an empty ballpark, was a glum, dull, dreary loss. Our Alby is better than your Alby, even though your Alby is nine inches taller than ours, but the Bulls have now split or lost their last four series, and are 7-9 in that span.
Meanwhile, the red-hot Gwinnett Braves have won 12 of their 16 games in August, and for two weeks before that they were even better, going 11-3 from July 18-31. Now 23-7 over the last month, they have surged ahead of the second-place Bulls by three games.
The good news, I suppose, is that it's extremely unlikely that the Braves (or any team) will continue to win at a .767 clip for what would amount to the final third of the season---although it's not impossible, of course. The bad news is that the Bulls have been hovering 12 to 16 games above .500 for nearly four weeks now, and it's starting to seem like they're not going much further north (or south) of where they are; this might be the team we've got. A lot can change in the remaining 21 games, of course, but one thing that surely will is major-league roster expansion, which is likely to deplete the team of its best talent and make the Bulls worse. What can change for the better? The veterans not on the 40-man roster will have to take charge: Dillon, Richard, Weber, Abreu, Childers. Guys like that. Otherwise, the Bulls, who are clinging to the wild-card lead and slipping further behind Gwinnett, might miss the playoffs that seemed a sure bet just a couple of weeks ago.
So last night's loss was disheartening not only because it was so lopsided, but because it meant that the Bulls failed to gain a series win for the first time in a while and get a little lift from that before the Charlotte Knights roll into town on Tuesday. It's a lift they'll have to---have to!---generate from within, because the guy starting for Charlotte tonight is a rehabbing major-leaguer by the name of Jake Peavy, who won this thingy a couple of years ago called the Cy Young Award. Maybe you've heard of it. And of him.
A bunch of notes follow:
* Guess who's back? Fernando Perez! He materialized, almost out of thin air, in the clubhouse after the game, looking as though he'd just breezed in from Florida---which in fact he had. He's also got a mustache, which must be why they gave him the locker next to Dale Thayer's. (Okay, sure, and it was Rhyne Hughes's.) And with his bushy hairdo---not an Afro; more like a Halfro---Perez looks like he could have stepped out of Ebony magazine ca. 1978, or stunt-doubled (without the mustache) for Antonio Fargas back in the blaxploitation days. It's a good look for him. Perez told me that he feels completely healthy and that he wasn't quite sure what the plan was yet; but he indicated that he might be in Tuesday's lineup. If so, and if Desmond Jennings and Justin Ruggiano are out there with him, there won't be many balls they can't chase down between them---as long as they don't lose any of them in the lights.
Cromer pointed out that he has nearly doubled his total innings from last season (138 so far in 2009 compared to 75 last year, and 85 2/3 in 2007), and so surely some fatigue has set in. Not only that, but Cromer is in AAA for the first time, and he's going to set a career high for innings pitched in a season (he maxed out at 154 back in 2003, between Class A and Double-A) at a more difficult level than he's ever been in.
Cromer wasn't offering any of that as an excuse---he's a pitcher who takes responsibility for what happens when he's on the mound---but was merely pointing out that he's essentially on terra incognita from here on out. He has curtailed his bullpen sessions, his workouts and his running in order to conserve his strength and energy (which are already tapped by the sticky, exhausting humidity of a North Carolina August), but there's really no guessing how Cromer will fare as the season winds down. One thing seems likely, though: he'll probably need to throw fewer pitches, which means---yep---even more work for the bullpen.
*Until last night, Craig Albernaz had most recently pitched in his freshman year of college, which my math suggests was eight years ago. Albernaz has a great arm---he's picked off multiple runners this season, and is hard to steal on---but throwing 89 mph after nearly a decade off the mound is quite impressive. Albernaz was modest, even a bit abashed, about what he did last night, though; "I was just trying not to hurt myself," he said, adding that, once on the mound, he was concerned that his pitches were riding in too much (he almost hit Kevin Russo) and he had to make adjustments. He joked that he would tell pitching coach Xavier Hernandez to make note of the tailing action on his fastball, but more seriously, Albernaz added, "Whatever keeps me in uniform." Like Jason Cromer, Albernaz is playing at the Triple-A level in for the first time this season, and "I'm just trying to show that I can play here." After originally coming up from Double-A Montgomery when Michel Hernandez was summoned to Tampa back in April, Albernaz has done that. He doesn't hit much (his OPS is .508), but he's a terrific defensive catcher and calls good games. When John Jaso missed time early this season with a minor injury, Albernaz stepped in quite capably.
* Akninori Iwamura was back in the lineup on Monday as the designated hitter. He went 0-3 with a walk and a fielder's choice RBI groundout; he also hit into a 4-6-3 double play. Charlie Montoyo told me that Iwamura's absence from the lineup on Sunday was a scheduled day off; in other words, Iwamura wants to play every day, but the Rays have other plans. I'm guessing he'll be the second baseman on Tuesday.
* Speaking of second basemen, Elliot Johnson missed his fourth straight game with a strained quad.
* Charlie Montoyo said that he expects Jeff Bennett to arrive on Tuesday, and I hope for Montoyo's sake that that happens. (Look for a corresponding roster move when it does.) He looked almost ill at how beleaguered his bullpen has gotten. "It really bothers me when I don't want to use guys but we have no choice," he said. Montoyo visited Jason Childers in the mound in the eighth inning, with two on and one out and Albernaz warming in the pen. I asked him what he said to Childers: "I don't want to take you out with men on base"---and with a catcher coming on to pitch next, too---"but I don't want you to throw 45 pitches and I lose you for three days." He left Childers in, and Childers got out of the inning with just five more pitches.
Montoyo is like a man trying to conserve water in the desert these days. And if anyone thought that Albernaz's appearance was supposed to give Montoyo and his charges a little levity at the end of an ugly loss---the players were having fun with it in the clubhouse after the game---think again: Montoyo is usually the first guy to lighten the mood after losses, but he wasn't playing along on Monday. For him, Albernaz was a reserve canteen that he felt forced to drain, not a freshet of comic relief.
* Chris Richard got one home run closer to a curious record on Monday. (By the way, a statistical oddity: nine of the Bulls' last 11 homers have been solo shots, and 58 of the 119 they've hit this season. I don't know how to check the numbers, but that seems like an unusually high percentage to me.) The record is most career home runs by a Durham Bull. The record is 61. I doubt Richard much wants or cares about the record, but he's likely to own it soon, and probably for a while.
* Meanwhile, Jon Weber is approaching the Bulls' single-season doubles record. He needs six to tie Steve Cox's 1999 mark. Cox was the league MVP that year (and the average price of gas that August was $1.28/gallon).
* A couple of Scranton/Wilkes-Barre notes: One day after the Bulls roughed him up, Russ Ortiz exercised a clause in his contract with the Yankees and was granted his release. He said he wanted to play for a post-season contender. (Someone in the press box pointed out that Scranton/Wilkes-Barre is a post-season contender.) Maybe Ortiz realized after Sunday's start that he's no better than Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre, the two journeymen currently worrying the fifth-starter role in the Bronx. Well, onto the next... Infielder Doug Bernier was activated from the disabled list to take Ortiz's roster spot, and he came into Tuesday's game as a late-inning replacement for Yurendell de Caster at third base. I admit that I bothered writing about the light-hitting Bernier only because I wanted one last chance to type "Yurendell de Caster," which is surely the coolest name in the International League. Plus, he pronounces it "Sure-EN-dell."
Wade Davis versus, uh, JAKE PEAVY! at 7:05 p.m. If you're not there, I just don't know what we're going to do with you.