by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/ DURHAM---Out here in (oh, just go ahead and call it the) blogosphere, we were getting a little restless after the Bulls got crushed by the Charlotte Knights on Wednesday, 8-1. The team seemed flat and dull, listless and [adjective of your choice]. And when Charlotte scored a run in the top of the first inning last night with a bloop single that was so shallow it was actually fielded by Bulls' third baseman Ray Olmedo, you couldn't help but think, and now here comes the bad luck, too.
The Bulls took a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the second inning, but they got help in the form of a bases-loaded walk (to John Jaso) and left the pasture F.O.B., failing to get a hit with the sacks packed. In the top of the third, the Knights tied it 2-2 when Olmedo made two errors (16, 17) on one play.
And then the Bulls loaded the bases again in the bottom of the third inning. Here's how they did it: walk, strikeout, flyout, walk, walk. Two outs, three on, zero hits. The Bulls seem to fail routinely in this situation lately. Jaso steps to the plate. With runners in scoring position this year he's 10/73, which is tragically bad---it seems he needs bases-loaded walks to succeed when it counts. But what I haven't bothered to look up is Jaso's average with the bases loaded.
Later, after Jaso rips a bases-clearing, three-run double to the base of the left-center field wall, I will look up that stat, and discover that he is now 4/8 with nine RBIs when the bases are loaded. It's now 5-2, Bulls. That's plenty for Jeremy Hellickson and a pair of relievers. Reid Brignac adds a two-out, two-run single in the fifth, and the rout is on. The Bulls win, 10-2. After the game Charlie Montoyo says, "I've never been so relaxed in the ninth inning." It's the Bulls first easy win in a week and a half.
The Bulls were gifted nine walks in this slow, slow, slow game, which was no less numbing for the home team's victory. Watching walk after walk, not to mention innumerable deep counts (a staggering 22 three-ball counts, and 20 at-bats that went six pitches or more), is anesthetizing: the game featured a total of 341 pitches and took 3:12 to play. Nonetheless, it was a rare blowout win for the Bulls, and one they needed. Hellickson, Joe Bateman and Winston Abreu combined for 17 strikeouts (the Charlotte hurlers added 10 of their own). The Bulls had so many men on base that it didn't matter that they went 3-17 with RISP. It didn't matter that leadoff hitter Fernando Perez went 0-5 with three strikeouts and looked like he hadn't swung a bat in six months---which he basically hadn't. It didn't matter partially because Perez made an absolutely holy-sh*t!-ridiculous catch of Wilson Betemit's screaming drive to straightaway center field in the sixth inning. The thing had turbo boosters on it and Perez raced back, reached up at full gallop, arm fully extended, and snared it. He was so excited at making the highlight-reel grab that he let his momentum carry him all the way to the wall, which he body-slammed gleefully before reversing course and trotting to the dugout. Asked later what he was thinking when the ball was first hit, his reply was succinct: "That I wasn't going to catch it."
Perez also distracted us from his dreadful evening at the plate with his new walkup tune, which---well, here you go. Why had he chosen it? Special meaning? Sentimental value? "I just like it," Perez said, once again wasting few words (you may have noticed that that's something I'm not used to doing). Come to think of it, I like it, too.
Hellickson wasn't his best---he ran up a 93-pitch tab in just five innings---but the Knights kept swinging and missing (14 times), and he wound up with 10 strikeouts. Hellickson had little to offer in the way of illumination after the game, except that his curveball wasn't really working for him. He's so low-key that you can't tell if he has nothing to say or if he's just not saying it. He seems rather at a loss to explain some of his own pitching. The sinking action on his four-seam fastball? "Just the natural run. I don't have an explanation for that." The changeup? Well, he just started throwing it regularly last year, but it's his best pitch right now, he tells us. Regardless, he's 4-1 with a 3.31 ERA, a WHIP just barely over 1.00, and an opponents' batting average of .192. He'd be even better were it not for hitters' increased success against him with runners in scoring position (OPS against: .822).
Charlotte's outfield shift for Akinori Iwamura was quite a sight. The left fielder was positioned about 15 feet off the line, and the center fielder was in the left-center field alley. If Iwamura had lined a ball to straightaway center, he'd have had a stand-up triple. As it happened, he walked in his first three at-bats; in the fourth, he pulled a single directly at the right fielder. Apparently, word is out about Iwamura's spray chart.
Charlie Montoyo has an embarrassment of position players these days. Last night, he made three late-game substitutions: Desmond Jennings for Fernando Perez, Shawn Riggans for Iwamura (Riggans popped out, and is still looking for his first hit since his return), and Chris Richard for Joe Dillon, who tweaked his back a little. The outfield has so much depth, neither Jennings nor Justin Ruggiano needed to start. It'd be nice to have Elliot Johnson back, though: the infield is decently staffed without him, but Ray Olmedo is looking a bit overdrawn lately.
Jeff Bennett will spot-start in Carlos Hernandez's place on Friday. (Hernandez is still in the Bulls' clubhouse, although Montoyo told us he'd be leaving for Tampa soon for off-site rehab.) I asked Bennett about his readiness for that, and he was upbeat and confident. He started four games for Atlanta last season and expected to be able to go 75 pitches for the Bulls on Friday if need be (Montoyo is thinking more like 50). Bennett, like Joe Nelson, is trying to work his way back up to the majors after losing his command, which he (like Nelson) thinks has to do with his release point. Bennett is a sinkerballer, and getting his hand over top of the ball is key for him if he's to produce the heavy, down-sinking action he relies on for outs. Montoyo has Julio DePaula and Jason Childers rested for longer-than-usual relief outings.
Jon Weber hit his 13th homer last night, an opposite-field job that barely cleared the Blue Monster and might have been an out in most ballparks. Given that he's leading the galaxy in doubles, I wonder if Weber was secretly hoping that his fly ball would have landed a few feet lower and added another two-bagger to his big pile. As it was, he had to settle for high-fiving his son after he crossed the plate, with his daughter and wife clapping for him. Sometimes it's the life, you know?