by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---"We had no pitching and no offense. It's that easy." Those were the first words out of the mouth of Durham Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo after last night's 8-1 drubbing at the hands of the last-place Charlotte Knights, before we'd even asked him a question.
No argument from me. Andy Sonnanstine had his second straight poor outing; the Bulls left five men in scoring position in the first five innings and then put only one more runner on base for the rest of the game against four different Charlotte relievers; Joe Nelson came on in the seventh and served up a two-run homer to Wilson Betemit; and the normally reliable Calvin Medlock gave up an obligatory ninth-inning gopher ball to Mike Restovich, who now has four of his 16 homers against the Bulls, all launched to approximately the same spot on the concourse behind the Blue Monster.
All in all, one to forget. Some thoughts follow.
The fieriest moment in this cold-oatmeal game came in the fifth inning. Charlotte's starter, a young, recently-promoted right-hander named Daniel Hudson (pictured, top), had been pitching in and out of trouble to that point. Had he not had to face the Bulls' center fielder Desmond Jennings, he might have had no trouble at all. Jennings went 3-3 against Hudson (he'd seen him twice and gone 1-7 against Hudson in Double-A ball earlier this year) with a double and a triple. He finished a home run shy of hitting for the cycle, which has been a historically popular thing to do this year; it hasn't been done so many times in one major-league season since 1933.
But partially because Jennings owned Hudson last night, the latter had men on base in every inning even though he gave up only a few hard-hit balls. He struck out Shawn Riggans to begin the fifth---Riggans is now 0-14 since his return to action, with six strikeouts---but walked Henry Mateo. After ball four, Hudson gave home plate umpire Bobby Price a fair amount of guff, standing on the mound and displaying a menacing what-gives? shrug, twice, and then picking up the rosin bag, squeezing it for a second, and throwing it down with an extra show of displeasure and aggression. Jennings followed with an easy grounder to shortstop that the Knights' Andy Cannizaro lollygagged on and played into an infield single. But Hudson fanned Jon Weber and got Justin Ruggiano to fly out to right, ending the inning and his 91-pitch outing.
Although Hudson's hot-headed protest was a bit uncalled-for---it wasn't as if the pitch to Mateo was right down the middle---it showed that he was competing, that he had intensity, that he cared. That was more than you could say for the Bulls, who looked apathetic and je m'en fiche for most of the night. Ray Olmedo made a lazy effort at an easy grounder in the eighth and earned his team-leading 15th error. Joe Nelson continued to shrug at the strike zone, throwing barely more than half his pitches over the plate and pushing his ERA back up to 9.00 when gave up a homer to free-swinging Wilson Betemit. In one late-inning stretch, five straight Bulls struck out swinging, including two against a pitcher they'd scored seven runs off of in seven prior innings this season.
The Bulls are now 8-10 over their last 18 games, and although that's nowhere near as bad as the awful swoon they fell into in June, recently the team has looked quite moribund. After the Bulls jumped on Jake Peavy for four runs in his abbreviated rehab start on Tuesday night, Charlie Montoyo noted that their success against him probably owed partially to their excitement about getting to face a pitcher of Peavy's caliber. But take away the runs they scored off of him---and keep in mind that Peavy was only halfway healthy and not even really trying to beat them; he didn't even know the names of the hitters he was facing---and the Bulls have scored only 10 runs (seven earned) in their last 35 innings. That's about 2 1/2 runs per game. It's hard to understand how one of the league's most deciduous offenses, which is first or second in the league in home runs, doubles and walks, can suddenly lose its leaves all at once. Part of it is a 14/67 (.209) mark with runners in scoring position during the current homestand, but there has to be more to it than the fata morgana known as clutch hitting.
And it isn't fatigue, either---or it shouldn't be, anyway. Charlie Montoyo is giving some optional practice these days in order to keep from tiring his hitters before game time, and he also reminded us that he's got plenty of position players right now: there are currently two rehabbing major-leaguers padding the roster. Thus everyone's getting days off, and no one should be unduly tired---except perhaps Ray Olmedo, who has started and played every inning of six straight games with Reid Brignac's recent absence and Elliot Johnson's injury. Henry Mateo, back when he first joined the club in late May, used to hop around at second base and chat up his teammates and drive opposing pitchers crazy with his long at-bats and his .300+ batting average. Now he looks tentative, blase and shaky out there, and he seems to hack at pitches early in the count much more often than he used to. He's all the way down to .263.
Is it just one of those funks, prolonged but temporary? Or is something deeper plaguing the team? Hard to know right now. The Bulls seem to score runs in bunches, or none at all. Certainly the team's "chemistry," if you believe in that (speaking of fata morganas, perhaps), isn't there, what with the constant flux of players, which Montoyo acknowledged is higher (i.e. worse) this year than it's ever been. The two rehabbers, Akinori Iawmura and Fernando Perez, can't possibly have much investment in the team, having just arrived and already anticipating their departures (Iwamura wasn't even in the clubhouse last night)---not to mention guys like Wade Davis and Dale Thayer, who may already be looking forward to a September callup when rosters expand. There are also four recently-demoted players currently on the roster---Jeff Bennett, Joe Dillon, Michel Hernandez and Joe Nelson---to go along with Brignac, who keeps bouncing between Durham and Tampa as an injury-replacement fill-in and just returned again last night (he wasn't in uniform), and Andy Sonnanstine, who was pitching in the World Series less than a year ago and is now getting knocked around in Triple-A, which he probably thought he'd escaped once and for all. In other words, right now this a team of widely varying priorities, moods and commitment levels. It's Montoyo's job to align them all, and you'd better believe he knows it. "No excuses," he said again on Wednesday night.
And speaking of Sonnanstine, over his last four outings he has allowed 36 hits and 17 earned runs in 23 innings, including four homers. His walk rate continues to be good---eight in 50 innings---but he doesn't have any command, in the literal sense: he isn't dictating the game to hitters. Last night, four of the nine hits he allowed came with two strikes. That suggests that he lacks an out-pitch, and that hitters are comfortable swinging the bat against him even in counts that should be uncomfortable for them. Also, 10 of the 18 outs Sonnanstine recorded were in the air, as opposed to just two on the ground. He did notch six strikeouts, which is encouraging, but he remains a rework-in-progress.
One roster note: a day after the Bulls mistakenly announced that Craig Albernaz had been placed on the seven-day disabled list and then took it back, they changed their minds and decided he was really very hurt after all and shelved him for real. Translation: a roster spot needed to be cleared for Brignac, and Albernaz was the fourth catcher on the roster, which really needs two. Look for Alby to rejoin the team when rosters expand in less than two weeks.
Those horse latitudes I wrote about a couple of weeks ago? The Bulls are still in 'em. Gwinnett has rowed ahead a bit, although still within sight, but Syracuse is now just 1 1/2 games behind Durham in the wild card standings, and Norfolk is sailing just behind the Chiefs. If the Bulls don't get their oar on soon, they'll sink.
Fortunately, the rest of the season gives them plenty of chances to fire shots directly at the bows of their rivals. After this series with Charlotte ends, Durham plays 14 of its last 17 games against---you guessed it---Gwinnett, Norfolk and Syracuse. In the mean time, the Bulls could do worse than take care of business at home against the Knights on Thursday and Friday. They send Jeremy Hellickson to the mound tonight against Jack Egbert. Egbert has pitched 5 2/3 innings versus the Bulls this season, and they've whacked him for seven runs. He's the equivalent of a bloodied matador, and the Bulls need to run him down.