This one is a tad easier than previewing the Bulls' first-round series against the Louisville Bats. Before that series, Durham and Louisville hadn't played each other in nearly two months, which is about two years in Triple-A time. The Yankees, on the other hand, visited the DBAP August 14-17, and although both teams have seen plenty of changes since then, anyone who attended some or all of those games will recognize the visitors when they return on Tuesday night.
And the visitors will recognize the Bulls' starting pitcher. Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson has already faced Scranton/Wilkes-Barre twice this season, and he's done very well both times. He went 7 1/3 against them on August 15, struck out seven, and allowed only two hits. Unfortunately, those two hits were both solo homers, by Juan Miranda and John Rodriguez, who remain the two most dangerous hitters in the Yankees' lineup. The two lefty power bats have hit 33 homers between them this season. Back on July 30, Hellickson pitched six inning of three-hit, shutout ball at Scranton.
His opponent tonight will be Romulo Sanchez, a very large, hard-throwing right-hander who is probably not to be confused with Humberto Sanchez, even though Sanchez is a Yankees pitcher who is also very large, right-handed, and hard-throwing. Together, they are about 13 feet and 550 pounds of Sanchez. The difference between them is that Romulo, despite his mid-90s fastball, has low career strikeout numbers (although they're higher this year), and Humberto has high ones. Also, Humberto is a reliever, and is recovering from years of injuries. The Bulls hitters, who are a fairly selective bunch, will need to be patient against Romulo, who has walked 34 hitters in 64 Triple-A innings this season. That's a very poor rate.
Game Two and beyond follows. I also highly recommend Chad Jennings's Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees blog, which has head-to-head matchups and is much more thorough overall than my preview.
Game Two: Yankees' Ian Kennedy (RHP) at Bulls' Mitch Talbot (RHP).
This is a matchup of damaged but prized goods. Kennedy was a very highly regarded prospect for New York not terribly long ago, often mentioned in the same breath as his Scranton-mate, Phil Hughes, who is now thriving with the big-league club. But early this season, Kennedy was diagnosed with an aneurysm of the kind that sidelined David Cone back in 1996 (their surgeries were performed by the same doctor). Kennedy is making his first Triple-A appearance since then. There's really no telling what we'll see from him. He was once compared to a young Mike Mussina: command and control of a good arsenal of pitches. He did well in a rookie-league outing last week.
Talbot began this season hoping to get a crack at Tampa Bay after posting good numbers with Durham in 2008, but he went down with a partially torn elbow tendon in late May and wasn't heard from again until he resurfaced down in the Gulf Coast league a couple of months later. He then suffered a strained shoulder before finally working his way back to the DBAP in time for the Louisville series. He started Game Two and was on a restricted pitch count (60, which he didn't even reach). He looked very good for three innings before suddenly coming unglued in the fourth, allowing four straight hits to begin the frame and finishing with an uninspiring 3 6 3 3 1 3 line for the game.
With Talbot's Jekyll-and-Hyde outing, and Kennedy's unpredictable return, this game is a tossup. Neither pitcher is likely to last more than four innings anyway, so the bullpens (about which more below) will probably settle accounts. I suspect that the Yankees' Ivan Nova, who would have started this game had Kennedy not displaced him, will come on in long relief. The Bulls have hit Nova well twice this season, although most of the damage done against him at the DBAP on August 14 was by guys no longer with the club.
UPDATE, TUESDAY, NOONTIME: Word comes from Bulls broadcaster Neil Solondz that Kei Igawa will spell Ian Kennedy in this game, which pushes Nova to Game Three. McAllister goes in Game Four. Game Five, well, let's just say that both teams are hoping there isn't a Game Five.
If, on the other hand, Yankees' skipper Dave Miley decides to save Nova for Game Three, then adjust the following previews accordingly: Kei Igawa for Game Four, Zach McAllister for Game Five.
Game Three: Bulls' Jason Cromer (LHP) at Yankees'
Kei Igawa (LHP)Ivan Nova (RHP).
The Bulls didn't have much trouble solving Igawa when they saw him on August 15, tagging him for eight hits and five runs in four innings. Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce had back-to-back home runs off of Igawa in that game. Joyce added a double and Ray Olmedo had a pair of hits. Igawa was also hit hard in his last outing, Game Two of the first round against Gwinnett. You'd think that this game would thus favor the Bulls, but Jason Cromer had one of his only poor outings this year against Scranton on August 17, although a fair portion of that was due to bad luck. Shelley Duncan's first-inning double was the only extra-base hit off of Cromer, and Duncan is now in New York with the big-league club. So all told, I think you have to like Cromer by a hair in this one.
Game Four (if necessary): Rayner Oliveros (RHP)/Heath Rollins (RHP)/Paul Phillips (RHP) at Zach McAllister (RHP).
I give three possible starters for the Bulls here for these reasons: Oliveros was awful against Louisville in the opening round and was gone before recording an out in the second inning. Charlie Montoyo might think about trying Heath Rollins, who replaced Oliveros and was better, if only marginally. He could also, with the off day on Monday pushing everyone back a day, go with Phillips on full rest. Since his callup from Montgomery, Phillips has made two starts for the Bulls---the first two starts of his five-year pro career---and has allowed just two runs in 10 total innings. It's probable that the overall series situation will determine Montoyo's choice here. Personally, I'd go with Phillips: why save the better pitcher for a game you might never play?
The 21-year-old McAllister, like Phillips (and Oliveros, and Rollins), was just called up from Double-A, where he had a very good season. He made his debut for the Yankees in Game Four of the Gwinnett series and pitched well enough to win, although he was by no means dominant. The Iowan allowed eight hits in 5 1/3 innings. The Yankees scored 12 runs for him in that game.
Hard to know who to like here. I haven't seen McAllister, and there is no guessing, really, who starts for Durham. Montoyo would be wrong to start Oliveros again, unless those are his orders from Tampa; there just isn't much promise there with his middling stuff. And as for Game Five in Scranton, that could basically be any pitcher on either team. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre reliever Anthony Claggett, who made a spot start against Durham earlier this year, was scheduled to do the same had the Gwinnett series gone to a fifth game. I suspect we'll see Rollins in Game Five, if there is one.
I probably don't need to rehash for you the dog's breakfast of roster changes that have overturned the Bulls' lineup. Durham was carried in the Louisville series by the middle of its order. Justin Ruggiano and Sean Rodriguez were very productive, and Matt Joyce had some key hits as well. It's late, late in the season: the big guns have to keep firing, and although it's unlikely that all three of the above will maintain top form, perhaps Desmond Jennings, who hit just .200 in the five games against Louisville, will find a groove. If not, an X Factor will have to be found if the Bulls are to win. Maybe Joe Dillon or Elliot Johnson will catch fire.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre lost Shelley Duncan, who hit 30 homers and was the league MVP, to New York, along with catcher Francisco Cervelli and infielder Ramiro Pena. Yurendell deCaster has been released. Other than Miranda and Rodriguez, the Yankees aren't really long-ball hitters. Kevin Russo ripped apart Durham pitching at the DBAP in August and hit .326 this season; he leads off and will be tough to deal with. Highly touted outfield prospect Austin Jackson blew hot and cold all year, and at the DBAP, but he's got loads of talent and will pose problems, especially if he gets on base and starts stealing more of them. (He is the Yankees' version of Jennings, with less power and more strikeouts.) Cody Ransom was on the disabled list during the Gwinnett series but may be activated, and he has a veteran bat. The rest of the lineup comprises contact guys with mostly low-ish averages.
Both teams are down to a few trusted stalwarts and some FNGs who won't be used much in high-leverage situations. For the Yankees,
it's Anthony Claggett and Zach Kroenke. (Claggett & Kroenke, aren't those the cranky commentators from The Muppet Show? And if they aren't, shouldn't they be?) UPDATE: I pulled a boner here. The New York Yankees just designated Claggett for assignment in order to make room on the 40-man roster for Freddy Guzman, who was called up to the big league club in order to audition for a pinch-running role. Although Claggett will probably make it through waivers, I had forgotten about the waiting period, which is long enough that Claggett is, I think, out of action until after the series. You think the Rays don't care about the Bulls? Taking Claggett away from the Yanks, along with four other relievers, really hurts the club.
Lefty Kroenke was excellent this season, especially against the Bulls. He gets support help from Kevin Whelan, a high-walks, high-strikeouts guy who allows few hits, et al. Jonathan Albaladejo, Mike Dunn, Mark Melancon and Edwar Ramirez are all up in New York now. The Yankees' relievers are prone to lots of walks; look for that to figure into the series at a couple of points, at least.
For the Bulls, it's basically Joe Bateman, Julio DePaula and Calvin Medlock trying to get the ball to Winston Abreu, who was the best reliever in the International League this season, bar none. He closed out all three wins over Louisville. Joe Nelson is also a proven commodity, although the proof is often damning.
Here's the part where I make a prediction, right? But I'm not that much of a sucker. That's why you play the games, as the cliche goes. Also, the Bulls are going to win.
You're in Mike Potter's hands tonight. See you Wednesday at the DBAP. Bring a slicker.