by Adam Sobsey
DBAP/DURHAM—What was that pitch Durham Bulls' starter Jeremy Hellickson threw numerous times at the Norfolk Tides? It broke like a slider but wasn't as fast; it didn't have the fade of a changeup, nor the bend of a curveball. Well, it's a slurve, Hellickson told me after the game. It's sort of supposed to be his curveball, but he actually has two curveballs, one a drop-in bender that's designed to be a strike, the other a two-strike version that's supposed to sweep across the plate—he throws it harder than the other—and fool the hitter into swinging at it. Oh, there's also a cutter he's working on—he threw it exactly twice, both in his last inning of work (the eighth, which should tell you how well he pitched)—but that slurve thing, which he's trying to turn into a proper 12-to-6 curveball, was deployed often.
And well. Does it really matter to anyone except a curious onlooker what exactly the Silent Cyclone (kids, he's from Iowa) was throwing on a night when, aside from a couple of mistakes to former teammate Rhyne Hughes (now batting .405, with 10 RBI in 11 games), he turned in another dominant performance in the Bulls' 10-1 whipping of the Norfolk Tides? Seven and two-thirds innings, four hits—one an infield grounder that second baseman Joe Dillon knocked down but couldn't quite corral—one walk, eight strikeouts. Exactly two three-ball counts. Only seven of the 29 batters he faced saw more than four pitches. Ninety-five pitches total, officially (I had him at 92), 65 (or 66) for strikes. And in typical Hellicksonian fashion, he barely even seemed to be working. He's got that easy, low-stress windup, that blank affect: he sort of kicked a little at the dirt after Hughes's first-inning homer on a misplaced 2-0 fastball. Hellickson's minutes on the mound, per inning, went like this: 3 3 5 11 (2 broken bats in the fourth) 4 6 3 5. By contrast, Tides' starter Chris Tilllman was on the hill for 24 minutes in his first and only (disastrous) inning of work. The Bulls led 4-0 after one frame, which allowed Hellickson to just rear back and pitch.
Not that he's ever done anything else. Hellickson has won all three of his starts so far this season; his ERA is 1.42. He is now 9-1 with a 2.24 ERA as a Durham Bull since July 2009. A reporter (not me!) asked him what else he had to prove at Triple-A, and Hellickson demurred. All he's done is overmatch just about every lineup he's faced since his callup last year. To prove? Not a damn thing, frankly, although the Iowan was politer about it than that ("give us a chance to win" ... "tough question," etc.). Manager Charlie Montoyo said of Hellickson, "He locates his fastball better at this point [meaning first-year Triple-A]" than any other pitcher Montoyo has had in Durham. That list of pitchers includes David Price, Jeff Neimann, Wade Davis and Mitch Talbot.
And to work on? Plenty, of course; Hellickson is 23 years old. That slurvy curve needs definition (his one walk was issued while tinkering with it, I thought; "he's got to keep working on his breaking pitches," Montoyo confirmed). That nascent cutter—the Rays asked him to develop a fourth pitch, he said. What else? Fill in all of Durham's potholes? He'll be in the majors soon, slurve or no slurve. Count on it.
But before he gets there, he might want to rethink how he pitches to Rhyne Hughes, who homered in the first and then doubled off Hellickson in the fourth. Hellickson exacted revenge, fanning Hughes with a changeup in the sixth. Montoyo pulled Hellickson with two outs in the eighth as Hughes stepped to the plate for his fourth at-bat; Brian Baker came on and got him to foul out to third. (Hughes showed up after the game at the Bulls' clubhouse door with a pizza; I assume he was giving it to Hellickson as thanks? I assume it had meatballs on it?) The Bulls have like 43 power-hitting first baseman on their current roster, but was dealing Hughes (for the one-and-done, departed catcher Greg Zaun) such a hot idea? To go with his .405 average he has five doubles, two homers and, for good measure, a triple, all adding up to a .757 SLG and a 1.207 OPS. The only bad thing you can find in his stat line is his two walks in 37 at-bats, and his truly comical right-fielding, which included on Sunday evening a dropped can-of-corn fly ball and a couple of other timid routes on hits he didn't even try to catch. Hughes has been a first baseman most of his career; if he keeps hitting like this, he can play lounge-chair if he wants, and his teammates will bring him pizzas to eat. But Hughes, it ought to be recalled, is a streaky hitter. He became an attractive trade chip in 2009 largely by virtue of a 13-game hitting streak—he was dealt a week after it ended.
Oh, and Desmond Jennings is back! More on that, plus plenty of other meatballs (but no potatoes), after the jump.
Boy, am I glad to be back at the DBAP!
Desmond Jennings is glad to be back, too; you could see it in his eyes after the game. He chipped a bone in his wrist during spring training while sliding into second base, and there was nothing to do but wait for it to heal. He went down to Port Charlotte and kept tracking pitches (kind of like simulated hitting training) and stayed in shape. In his first at-bat on Sunday—-he led off—-he whacked Tillman's fifth pitch over the third baseman's head for a double. He walked in the fourth and sixth, and saw a total of 24 pitches in five at-bats. I asked him about his selectiveness at the plate, which we saw from him last year as well. Learned or instinctive? "It's easy to hit strikes," he said. "I'm just swinging at what I can hit." So, instinctive, I guess. Once Jennings gets into the groove—-he said he's still a bit nervous extending his wrist all the way out when he swings—-he's almost surely going to make the Rays pay a lot of attention to him, especially if he can hit a few homers.
The Bulls outfield last night—-Jennings, Fernando Perez and Justin Ruggiano—-is probably the fastest and best-fielding in the International League. It was great to catch up with Ruggiano after the game. I asked him about his offseason work with hitting coach Jaime Cevallos, but Ruggiano was quick to say that he also (and more importantly) worked with another coach (a hitting instructor in the Reds' organization named Ronnie Ortegon), and that that work really got him into the head-space that allowed him to thrive in spring training and adjust his overall approach. I asked him about mechanical specifics, but Ruggiano kept coming back to terms like "learned myself" and "calmer" and "a rhythm and a balance" and "what I'm feeling" (Ortegon, it seems, is a kind of hitting therapist) and "trying to get things done on time," which latter was a way of saying that Ruggiano has committed himself to focusing on what he's doing early in the count so as to make sure he gets good pitches to hit—-last year, he too often seemed to be looking at a 1-2 count, whereupon he frequently seemed to strike out swinging on a breaking ball low and away.
And so cf. the first inning last night. Ruggiano falls behind 1-2. But he fouls off three pitches and finally works a walk out of Tillman. After Jennings's leadoff double and Fernando Perez's walk, the Roodge has forced the bases F.O.B. Nobody out. Tillman's in big trouble. Hank Blalock hits a sacrifice fly, and then Tillman uncorks two wild pitches around a Joe Dillon single, a Chris Richard single, a hit batter, an Elliot Johnson single; and it's 4-0 Bulls. With Hellickson on the mound, the game is pretty much over after the first inning.
A fair amount of the credit for all of that goes, it seems to me, to the Roodge, for his patient nine-pitch at-bat. (Later, in the sixth inning with the Bulls leading 6-1, and again down in the count 1-2, he sagely poked an outside pitch to right field for a two-run single.) This is a 28-year-old outfielder who could have resigned himself to being not-quite-good-enough for the major leagues—-Triple-A is amply stocked with guys in their late 20s who are pretty much just filler at this point—-and played out the string. But here he is, working, trying to evolve, trying to improve, and still growing up. I ended our chat by asking about his nine-month-old son, and Ruggiano's eyes lit up again. "He's awesome," Ruggiano said of baby Brooks. Sure enough, Ruggiano followed me out of the clubhouse and into the lobby, where wife and baby were waiting for his lavishly administered affection.
Some notes to wrap things up:
* Jeff Bennett, who left his last start with arm tightness, has been "assigned to Hudson Valley." The Renegades don't start playing until June, but the Rays use the roster as a place to stick players who are suffering from minor injuries, are between starts, etc. You will often see players nominally designated "Hudson Valley Renegades" sitting at the end of the Bulls' bench, wearing a sweatshirt that covers their Bulls attire. Bennett will miss his next start, so Aneury Rodriguez has been called up from Double-A Montgomery in Bennett's place. (Hopefully he will not get confused and actually go to Bennett Place.) Baby A-Rod was acquired in the 2009 trade that sent Jason Hammel to Colorado. He is considered a top-30 Rays prospect by Baseball America and it should be fun to see what he can do in Triple-A.
* Rashad Eldridge is injured (shoulder) and will go on the disabled list soon. Chris Nowak remains there, although he was in the Bulls' clubhouse last night. With all due respect—-Eldridge will forever be in the Bulls' pantheon for scoring the winning run in the Bulls' Triple-A Championship victory—-Jennings is an improvement over Eldridge, and Hank Blalock, who owns 152 major-league homers and two All-Star appearances, is a step (or six) up from Nowak.
* Matt Joyce ended his major-league rehab assignment, which raises at least one eyebrow: he isn't on the Rays' 25-man roster. According to Montoyo, something is still wrong with Joyce's elbow, and he hasn't played since Tuesday. He will go see a doctor in Florida on Monday. Don't look for him in action for a bit.
* Nor is Winston Abreu all the way back to 100 percent. Abreu had offseason surgery for an aneurysm and Montoyo isn't using him on back-to-back days for now—in fact, he's had two days off between each appearance this season so far. In four innings, he has yet to allow a hit. One walk. No runs. You know what they say about cold mashed potatoes, don't you? (OK, so there are potatoes after the jump...)
* Mention must be made of Elliot Johnson, who remained on a roll with two more hits in four trips last night. After starting the season 1-25, Johnson has now gone 7-14 since. He has apparently, officially, given up the funk; he is now the Eedge again. Also, catcher Alvin Colina, 1/20 to begin the year, had two RBI doubles off of Tides' submarining reliever Andy Mitchell on Sunday—and, of course, caught Hellickson, who didn't appear to shake off any signs. The Bulls have scored 31 runs over their last three games.
That's it for now. The Bulls play a home-and-home with Charlotte over the next four days—two there, two here. On Monday at Fort Mill, SC, they get Knights' starter Carlos Torres, a true matador: the righty went 4-0 versus the Bulls in 2009; in five appearances, he allowed just three runs over 28 innings, with 21 hits and 30 strikeouts.
Back at it on Wednesday afternoon at the DBAP at 1:05 PM. I'll be there. Whatever you're supposed to be doing at work that day, it can wait.