by Adam Sobsey
To cut to the chase, which ended in what amounted to a single-car accident involving a Taurus: Bulls southpaw pitcher Jason Cromer, just activated off of the disabled list after recovering from elbow problems that had plagued him since March, relieved Baby A-Rod with two on and two out in the top of the sixth inning, and the Bulls ahead 2-1. Although Cromer is normally a starter, it was decided that he would pitch in relief of Rodriguez, not only because it was Cromer's first Triple-A action of the season (so break him in gently), but more importantly because, according to Bulls' broadcaster Neil Solondz, Cromer hadn't thrown more than 56 pitches in a game this year so far. A short outing was planned—not as short, though, as the one he turned in.
Facing his first batter, Cromer retired Dustin Martin on a flyout to center field, and he appeared to look just fine on the mound, throwing some beguiling curveballs and burying a fastball knee-high: straight into fourth gear, it seemed, for Cromer.
In the last of the sixth, the famine descended. Dan Johnson, terror of the International League, drew a leadoff walk from Perkins. Joe Dillon then looped the next pitch into right field for a single—except that Johnson wasn't sure it would fall in, and was further duped by Dustin Martin out in right field. Martin raised his glove as if to catch the ball, which bounced well in front of him, and Johnson, fooled by the ruse, began to retreat to first base. Martin fielded the ball and threw out Johnson easily at second base, downgrading Dillon's hit to a fielder's choice. So instead of two on and no outs, it was one on and one out.
Dillon stole second base, though, and the Bulls had the runner back in scoring position. Ryan Shealy struck out (you could say that, malheureusement, after all four of Shealy's at-bats last night), but Angel Chavez dinked a bloopy, opposite-field single to right. With two outs, Dillon was running all the way, and he scored easily.
Not so fast.
Joe Dillon is almost 35 years old. That's young, but not for a ballplayer. That's old. There are plenty of 35-year-olds still playing well, but baseball is a peculiarly dangerous sport in that it asks athletes to stand around letting muscle fibers atrophy and contract and then suddenly—steal second base, now, Joe!—activate them at full bore.
In short, HAMSTRINGS!
The older you get, the more brittle become the rubber bands that hold you together. So almost-35 Joe Dillon, who had just asked a lot of his body while stealing second base, comes galloping merrily home—there isn't even a throw to the plate. Dillon is about 15 feet away from scoring when he keels over—pow!—like a soldier who has just been gunned down at Omaha Beach. Heroic to the end, Dillon literally crawls the last little distance to the plate, as though delivering some crucial intelligence to his C.O. before expiring. It is heartening to watch, like a scene in a great war movie, and Dillon has given the Bulls a valuable insurance run before perishing. They lead 3-1.
All good, right? Sure, the Dillon's done, but you can now count your money at this particular table, it seems. Rochester starter Glen Perkins, who has looked much, much better than his record and stats might have suggested, is out of the game, chased by Chavez's RBI single that scored Dillon. Dan Johnson, the designated hitter, moves to third base, relocating Angel Chavez to second, where Dillon had been playing. Sure, the rules say that when you move the DH into the field, the pitcher has to bat, but that won't be for a while; and in any case, the Bulls lead 3-1 with shiny and polished Cromer on the mound.
Looking back, though, this whole inning—Dan Johnson's misfortunes on the basepaths, Dillon's injury while redeeming those misfortunes—was the inning in which the Bulls, though appearing to take control of the game, began to hand it back to the Red Wings.
And so back to Cromer, who was not shiny after all, and literally not so fast. In 2009, when he was the Bulls' most reliable starting pitcher (7-3 with a 2.25 ERA in 19 starts), Cromer's fastball sometimes touched 90 mph on the DBAP radar gun. Last night it sat around 86 and reached 87 a couple of times. He may have been declared ready for Triple-A action, but he isn't all the way back to where he was before the injury.
And in the top of the seventh inning, Cromer made it so the Red Wings didn't have to do anything so fast: He walked three of the four men he faced, force-feeding runners onto the basepaths. Home plate umpire Jon (Not So) Merry's strike zone wasn't helpful—Cromer glared at him after a couple of close pitches were deemed balls—but the fact is that you don't throw 13 of 19 pitches for balls unless you generally miss the plate all by yourself, without the ump's opinion.
So. Three walks. Bases loaded, one out. Charlie Montoyo replaced Cromer with Mike Ekstrom, who has been eksellent this season since arriving from Tampa Bay, where he held Joaquin Benoit's place while the latter got his arm strength back. Ekstrom had allowed just one earned run as a Bull, two altogether, in 16 1/3 innings of work, for an 0.55 ERA with a 0.98 WHIP (that's really, really good).
Fortunately for Cromer, Ekstrom bailed him out. He struck out Matt Tolbert and then got Trevor Plouffe to hit an easy, inning-ending groundout to second base, vacated by Joe Dillon and now manned by Angel Chavez. Chavez is really a third baseman and shortstop, but it was a ho-hum play that almost any professional baseball player will make. The ball was hit slowly, and almost right at Chavez, who scooped it up and tossed it to first to retire the side.
Not so fast.
So sure was I that the inning was over that I looked down to notate the 4-3 putout on my scorecard before the play was complete. When I looked up, Chavez was at the tail end of, let's just say, not fielding the ball even a little bit. It may have taken a slightly weird spin-hop (it kind of cued off of Plouffe's bat), and afterward Chavez was holding his throwing hand as if to exculpate himself; but it was, unquestionably, still an easy, easy play, and he blew it. Worse, not only did Chavez not field the ball cleanly, it kicked off of his glove, or hand, or aura, or something, and rolled into shallow right field. Two runs scored easily, and the game was tied.
As if in sympathy, Ekstrom then gave up a hard-hit double to Jose Morales (his second two-bagger of the game). The go-ahead run scored from third, and Plouffe was waved around from first base. Sprinting hard all the way (that's A Bout de Souffle by Plouffe, if you're scoring at home), the 23-year-old shortstop didn't hurt his hamstring at all, beat the relay throw by a step or two and slid across home plate; Bulls' catcher Alvin Colina didn't even bother to apply the pro forma tag. 5-3, Red Wings.
Not so fast. Jon Merry didn't signal that Plouffe was
souffe safe. He just stood there, like the conductor at an orchestral performance who alone knows that the symphony, despite resting for a half note, has a few more measures to go before the finale. The crowd started screaming for Colina to tag Plouffe, and/or for Plouffe to step on home plate. There was a breathless, frenzied yet indecisive abeyance during which Colina and Plouffe looked dazed and confused while other players and Merry surrounded them in various poses and states of incompletion. Then Colina came to his senses all at once and tagged Plouffe several feet behind home plate. Merry called Plouffe out, Plouffe went ape and was immediately ejected, and Rochester manager Tom Nieto charged down from the third base coaches' box for the same heave-ho.
Not so fast. Merry wouldn't toss Nieto, for whatever reason—apparently Nieto didn't use the proper string of expletives—and after the inning was over, the two were seen amiably chatting like actors comparing notes after a performance of a pivotal scene in a Eugene O'Neill play.
Still 4-3, and the game remained in reach for Durham, despite the ugliness of the inning. The ominous clouds, which had doused the ballpark with a a splash of hard rain during the Bulls' two-run third inning, had somehow passed north of the DBAP without causing further problems. Perkins was gone. Cromer had done his damage, and although the Bulls went in order in the seventh inning—three hitters mired in slumps—Ekstrom looked sharp dispatching the Red Wings in the top of the eighth. The heavy lumber was due up in the last of the inning.
Justin Ruggiano, in a trough of his own since his return from the disabled list, struck out looking. (He did that twice last night. At least he's not going down swinging fecklessly at pitches out of the strike zone, like he did last year.) But Dan Johnson walked for the second time—he also narrowly missed a couple of homers earlier in the game with long flyouts that he barely got under by perhaps a few millimeters—and the Bulls had a threat.
And here's where the famine comes in. Durham still leads the International League in most of the major statistical hitting categories, but they have a number of players not swinging the bat well. As Charlie Montoyo noted after the game, other than Dan Johnson, who is like a man playing against boys right now, Durham doesn't have another player in the lineup who is in the zone right now.
Except, Montoyo was quick to point out, for Joe Dillon. Over his last 10 games, Dillon is hitting .343 with a .921 OPS. Seven of his 12 hits have been doubles.
And guess whose turn in the order followed Dan Johnson's? Yep, Joe Dillon's. So Montoyo called on Chris Richard, who was out of the lineup with a scheduled day off, to pinch-hit. Not a terrible choice, as Richard is having a good season so far and had just had a seven-game hitting streak snapped. But Richard, as he is sometimes prone to do, was overaggressive early in the count, trying to gobble up non-nutritive pitches. He swung and missed at reliever Kyle Waldrop's first offering and fouled off the second. Quickly down 0-2, Richard battled back to 2-2, but he struck out on a high fastball that might have been out of the strike zone, and stalked back to the dugout looking frustrated.
Up stepped Ryan Shealy, who is an (ahem) feast-or-famine hitter. He was only only hitting .229 over his last 10 games, with 11 strikeouts in 35 at-bats, but all eight of his hits in that span were either doubles or homers. (Actually, Shealy is at .228 for the season, and 19 of his 29 hits are for extra bases, so it's less a slump than more of the same.) It kind of made sense that he had homered off of Glen Perkins in Rochester on May 4 but had struck out three times against him last night.
With the fans imploring him to come through, Shealy belted Waldrop's 1-1 pitch about eight miles foul—just out in front of what would have been a game-changing two-run homer—then struck out looking on the next pitch to earn a golden sombrero for the night. In the ninth inning, Fernando Perez (in a terrible slump) walked with two outs and stole second base, but Desmond Jennings—yet another Bull in a rut (5-33 over his last nine games)—flied out to left field to end the game. Eh ben.
A few notes till tomorrow:
* After the game, the clubhouse was quiet, most of the players ensconced over by the dinner table, which is off-limits to the media; well, at least the famine doesn't extend to the postgame meal. Among other things, that means they don't feel like talking. Joe Dillon, who will be out a good while, was on the trainer's table getting wrapped, iced, taped, scattered, smothered and covered. Charlie Montoyo, for his part, seemed uncharacteristically peevish and out of sorts, and he gave short, bony answers to questions. He (rightly) blamed Cromer's three walks, not Chavez's error, for the mess of the decisive seventh inning, and added that, based on Cromer's poor outing, Aneury Rodriguez would stay in the starting rotation until further notice. Montoyo hates walks, hatesthem—he's complained about them before when they've hurt his team. Sure, as a former utility infielder, he may have been (subconsciously) inclined to defend his utility infielder, Chavez; but there's no arguing that Chavez would never have needed to make that play had Cromer done the most basic part of his job, which is throwing strikes. I'll try to catch up with Cromer tonight in the clubhouse; he was, understandably, not around for questions after last night's fiasco.
* Montoyo also observed that inconsistency is plaguing his lineup. They seem to score a whole lot of runs or hardly any at all. In all but one of their last 12 games, they've scored either more than seven runs or fewer than four. i.e. either too many or too few. They're averaging around five but rarely score five; had they done so last night, they'd have won. Feast or fast for the Bulls. When a team is fourth in the league in walks drawn and comfortably mid-pack in strikeouts, it's perplexing to see them strike out 14 times against the worst team in the league, especially against a starter they had just trounced three weeks ago. (They drew a generous five walks, but none of them came around to score, wasting away on the basepaths.) The Bulls started the season 13-3 and were still a sparkling 19-10 less than three weeks ago. Since then, they've had losing streaks of four and five games sandwiching a win-streak of four. Slow and steady, not feast and fast, wins the race.
* Pitching coach Xavier Hernandez is away from the team to attend to personal matters.
* Who will replace Joe Dillon? Seems like there are three options: 1) Chris Nowak, who plays third base and has played for the Bulls before, is down in Montgomery. Unfortunately, he's hitting a dismal .188 there with a .287 slugging percentage. 2) J. J. Furmaniak, signed by Tampa in the off-season to play infield for the Bulls, is also in Montgomery, rehabbing a spring training ankle injury. He's hitting .310 as a Biscuit in 11 games since his activation, and may be ready for Class AAA action. 3) Sean Rodriguez, who spent the last part of 2009 with the Bulls, is struggling in the majors with the Rays. It might not be a terrible idea to send him back to Durham for some confidence-building, and perhaps see if Toro muy caliente Dan Johnson, who is second in the International League in homers (and would be leading the Pacific Coast League if he played there), can bash some long balls for them off the bench. I'm betting on 2).
* A note about stats and predictions and such, and a reminder that baseball in Class AAA is about process, not results: Glen Perkins, the Rochester starter, looked great last night even though he came into the game with a bloated 9.09 ERA. In fact, he was better than his line might indicate: He allowed three runs in 5 2/3 innings, but all of them scored on bloop singles. Perkins threw hard, with superb command and control, and positively dominated the lower part of the Bulls' lineup, who went 1-10 with eight strikeouts against him. I asked Red Wings' skipper Nieto about Perkins afterward, and Nieto mentioned that Perkins had been battling a "cranky back" for much of the early part of the season. Healthy in recent days, he had been getting better and better lately. It was really no surprise, in retrospect, that he was so successful last night. He has now trimmed 2 1/2 runs off of his ERA in his last four starts. After feasting on him in April, the league has now begun to starve for runs against Perkins.
* Richard De Los Santos is on the mound tonight for the Bulls, who still lead the IL South Division by 5.5 games. They're lucky, with their middling 26-21 record, that they play in the league's worst division: no other team is at .500. Right now they seem to be a team with plenty of power, but little electricity. Or is that plenty of food, but no appetite?