Durham Bulls vs. Louisville Bats Playoff Preview | Sports

Durham Bulls vs. Louisville Bats Playoff Preview

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Triple-A baseball teams are subject to a variation on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the one you may have run across in the movie The Man Who Wasn't There or in the play Copenhagen. Basically, it says that you can't determine both the velocity and position of a particle at the same time. It's possible that we're really talking about the Observer Effect here, or possibly Schrödinger's cat, or even quantum superpositions. All I can say is, don't do what I did; don't go look them all up, because the next thing you know you're lost in something very like the Uncertainty Principle yourself: you think you know what you're looking for, and then as soon as you think you've found it, it turns into something else. Eventually you wind up desperately lost in a terrible, mountainous region, overrun by wild beasts and full of tar pits, known as Verschränkung. Just don't go there, kids.

Instead, do what Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo does before each series---or rather, don't do what he doesn't do: pay any attention to the opposing team's record, or to what happened the last time the Bulls played them. Montoyo has said several times this year that all he looks at is how they've been playing the last couple of weeks.

That's because, as you probably know if you're a Bulls fan, minor-league teams change constantly. The last time the Durham Bulls played the Louisville Bats was July 19 at Louisville. Thirty-two players saw action in that game, and only half of them remain on the teams' rosters. Both starters, each team's leading home-run hitter, four of Durham's five pitchers that night, the league's Most Valuable Pitcher (Justin Lehr) and the Bats' leadoff man: all gone.

So take the following preview as a thought experiment, a la Schrödinger's cat---until Wednesday at 7:05 p.m., when the cat (the Durham Bulls) actually goes into the box (the DBAP) with the flask of poison (the Louisville Bats) and the radioactive substance (Jeremy Hellickson's first pitch, let's say). Then we'll see if the beast lives or dies.

If my colleague Mike Potter, who for most of the season has covered the Reds' Double-A affiliate, the Carolina Mudcats, feels inspired to chime in, the cat will get at least partway out of the bag/box: more than half of the current Bats' roster has seen time in Zebulon this year.

So how have the Louisville Bats been doing over the last two weeks? Really well, thanks for asking! They're 10-4. They've scored 72 runs in those 14 games (5.14/game) and allowed 53 (3.79/game). Those are good raw and comparative numbers.

The Bulls, though, have been even better. They're 11-3 in that same stretch, scoring 87 runs (6.2/game) and allowing 49 (3.5/game). These two teams are rolling right now, and they finished 1-2 in the overall standings: Bats 84-58, Bulls 83-61 (Louisville lost two games to rain).

So one thing is sure: one of the two teams is going to cool off.

Key Bats hitters: Yonder Alonzo, Wes Bankston, Jay Bruce, Juan Francisco, Todd Frazier, Ryan Hanigan, Chris Heisey.

Bankston is a former Bull, and he plays a bit like one. The corner infielder is big and strong, and he hit 17 homers this season. Francisco, Frazier and Heisey were all Southern League All-Stars. Alonzo was just promoted to Louisville today after the Mudcats' season ended yesterday, and he has been on a tear, winning SL hitter of the week honors in the season's final week (thanks, Mike!). Mike Potter also called Heisey "simply the best player in the [Southern] league this year." (He'd almost surely have won the MVP award over the Bulls' Desmond Jennings---check out these stats---had he not been promoted to Louisville after a half-season in Double-A.)

So, plenty of young power on the Bats' roster. They are abetted by Jay Bruce, a former first round draft pick of the Reds who made a big-league splash very early, at the age of 20, and was in Cincinnati's starting lineup until fracturing his wrist earlier this season, while diving for a ball. He is rehabbing with the Reds, and will be a very dangerous left-handed presence in the Bats' lineup. He's joined by another major-league rehabber, catcher Ryan Hanigan. Louisville should be able to score runs against the Bulls.

The Louisville Bullpen:

On paper, not very exciting. The horses are Federico Baez, Jeff Kennard and the 6-foot-8 Logan Ondrusek, who hasn't allowed an earned run in his last eight appearances and is now the team's closer. Otherwise, it's mostly new guys up from Carolina. Three of them have only 15 Triple-A appearances combined. The Bats' bullpen seems like a potential weakness---but who knows, really? Especially if Ondrusek continues to dominate, or if Louisville manager Rick Sweet decides to use some of his extra starters in relief.

The pitching matchups:

Game One, Wednesday: Bats' LHP Ben Jukich @ Bulls' RHP Jeremy Hellickson.

This game has to favor Durham on paper, because Hellickson is the hottest starter in the league right now. His line over his last two starts:

15 4 0 0 2 21.

Jukich is best known to Bulls' fans as the guy who surrendered Chris Richard's second grand slam of the game way back on May 15 at the DBAP. That 11th-inning, opposite-field bomb tied a rare record and gave the Bulls a thrilling 13-9 victory. Jukich is mainly a starter, though, and he pitched very well against the Bulls on July 19, allowing only two hits over eight innings. Those two hits, though, were solo homers by Elliot Johnson and Matt Joyce, both of whom are still Bulls. Jukich is a groundball-ish guy, getting 1.36 groundouts for every out in the air---although his HR rate is rather high. But lately, though, his strikeouts have also increased. His line over his last three starts (after struggling in the two before these):

19 2/3 14 3 3 5 20.

Chris Richard is gone, of course, and his lefty bat in the lineup has basically been replaced by Sean Rodriguez's righty one.

One thing keeps nagging at me: it seems like Hellickson's performance tomorrow will really determine the Bulls' fortunes in the series. Not only will a strong outing set the Bulls up for a win---very important with the final three games (if necessary) on the road---but it will also conserve the bullpen, which will be heavily taxed as the series goes on, especially in Games Two and Four. Is the young righty feeling pressure? I asked him what he planned to do in order to prepare for the game, especially during today's off day. "Lay around," he said. Sounds like Jeremy being Jeremy.

Game Two, Thursday: Bats' LHP Travis Wood @ Bulls' RHP Mitch Talbot.

The 22-year-old Wood is a late-season call-up from Carolina. He's made eight starts for the Bats, and has a solid 3.14 ERA and a .240 batting average-against. His strikeout totals have declined in Class AAA. It's hard to assess his recent performance: three of his final four regular-season starts were against the same team, the Indianapolis Indians.

This will be the second straight game in which the Bulls will face a left-hander. In a way, the loss of Chris Richard is greatly cushioned by Sean Rodriguez's arrival. Also, Chris Nowak has re-joined the team from Montgomery, and he brings an extra righty bat to the lineup; Rashad Eldridge has already brought his with him. (Nice to have them, because they will have seen the up-from-Carolina pitchers now with Louisville, and can clue their teammates in on what to look for.) In fact, the Bulls should be a better team against lefties generally. They can conceivably field a 100% righty lineup, if Montoyo wants to do it---although it should be kept in mind that Justin Ruggiano has reverse splits: the righty actually hits other righties better than he does lefties.

Can't guess about Talbot, except to say that he'll be limited to four innings and/or 60 pitches; so this game may hinge more on how the Durham bullpen fares. Winston Abreu and Dale Thayer may have to log heavy innings in this one if it's close. Because of Talbot's restricted availability in Game Two, there's a fair amount of pressure on Hellickson to pitch deep into Game One.

Game Three: Bulls' LHP Jason Cromer @ Bats' RHP Sam LeCure.

Charlie Montoyo told us after yesterday's game that the park in Louisville is one of the nicest in the league. If I could afford to go up there, I would. He also mentioned that the wind tends to blow from left to right, aiding left-handed home-run hitters. (Here he calculated his comic timing down to the nanosecond, and then added: "Like Chris Richard.") Cromer pitched there on July 16 (notice who hit a homer). He had a weird game: In 5 2/3 innings, he allowed seven hits and five walks, but somehow only one run. Cromer has been sensational all year with men in scoring position, especially with two outs.

LeCure faced the Bulls way back on May 12. To give you some idea of how cobwebbed the memory of that game is, David Price started it for the Bulls, and the three relievers that followed him were all gone from the team by June (Jason Isringhausen, Chad Orvella, Randy Choate). LeCure was only OK in that start, and he allowed homers to two Bulls who are still/again on the team: Ray Olmedo and Chris Nowak. Nowak also later doubled off of Ben Jukich (the Bulls' other double was hit by... Chris Richard, of course). That was the game in which Dale Thayer had a ninth-inning, five-run meltdown, taking the loss.

The edge here ought to go, just a bit, to the Bulls, except that it is perhaps negated by where it's being played. There's every reason to think that this series could go five games, which poses a distinct problem for Charlie Montoyo: he has no one lined up to pitch Game Four or Game Five. I assume Rayner Oliveros is the default choice for Game Four, but we could be seeing what Neil Solondz likes to refer to as "bullpen by committee" for as long as the Bulls remain in the playoffs.

This is a bit unsettling, perhaps, because Charlie Montoyo repeated yesterday that what happens in the playoffs will come down to how his pitchers fare. I'd narrow that down even further: it's probably going to come down to how Hellickson does and how the mainstays of the bullpen perform. New arrivals like Paul Phillips---who was a candid and enthusiastic interview yesterday, and is eager to help in any way Montoyo would like him to---Heath Rollins and Mike Wlodarczyk are probably going to be used sparingly (e.g. lefty-on-lefty for Wlodarczyk; need-a-hard-thrower-so-go-get-Phillips; or summon Rollins in the case of a blowout).

Perhaps that's as it should be. As Phillips noted when I asked him about joining a club just before the playoffs, "This is their season; so you don't want to go out there and screw up," he said, laughing. It's not that Phillips and his fellow risen Biscuits don't care; but it would be foolish to try to argue that they have the same investment in the upcoming series as players like Ray Olmedo and Justin Ruggiano do. Still, Phillips is ready and willing to reach back for some extra heat on his fastball, which can touch 95 mph. "More than likely," he said, "you'll see it dialed up a little bit more."

And his stablemates in the bullpen will need to dial it up---or at least push the right buttons---especially the old-timers. Not only Abreu and Thayer but also Joe Bateman (control issues but dependable), Julio DePaula (great stuff often executed badly) and Calvin Medlock (unexciting but somehow effective) are likely to see lots of pressure innings. And as always, the Bulls tend to play down-to-the-wire games regardless of what particles are on the roster at any given moment. That's one thing that isn't uncertain at all.

Enough with the particle physics. What about the psychological aspect of all of this? Do minor-leaguers, now that the season is basically over, still care about playing for a championship that is, frankly, of little interest to the world? I asked John Jaso about it. Jaso is a thoughtful and honest guy to talk to, and after a difficult season he has been swinging the bat well lately, as though he's just now rounding into form. He's hitting .385 over his last seven games with three doubles and five walks. Jaso conceded that, for players with families, it can be hard to stay motivated when you'd really like to go home. But for Jaso, "the exhilaration to play comes back" at playoff time. He called winning the 2007 championship in Montgomery "the greatest feeling you could possibly have." And he also pointed out that the Bulls have an experienced, veteran clubhouse, accustomed to the grind of the season and less prone to homesickness and fatigue. "A lot of these guys know... that as long as we're here, we might as well win it all."

***

The playoffs are notoriously under-attended every year at the DBAP, and not only because Durhamites are spoiled by the Bulls' almost annual presence in the post-season. Somehow, even though future stars are on display, with their competitiveness ratcheted up to match the intensity of the playoffs, people don't seem to care. You go to college sports, don't you? Watch those amateur prospects do their thing? Wave the big foam finger for your local five or eleven? Knock back some stadium eats? Soak up the autumn air? What's keeping you from doing the same for the professionals? Time to buck the trend. Game time tomorrow is at 7:05 p.m., and the hottest pitcher in the minor leagues is on the mound for the home team. See you there.

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