by Adam Sobsey
The thing was, the Bulls had been rallying all night long. Red Wings' pitchers didn't record a single 1-2-3 inning in the game, and Durham sent at least five men to the plate in five different innings. Through eight, they had 14 hits. They made Rochester starter Jeff Manship burn through 89 pitches in five innings, chasing him early, and they made a game out of what initially looked like a Red Wings' blowout. Bulls' starter Carlos Hernandez had had a miserable start, throwing balls and walking guys or throwing strikes that were hit hard, and it was 5-0 Rochester after 1 1/2 innings. But the Bulls answered with three runs in the third. The teams exchanged runs later on, and that set the stage for the Bulls' ninth and final rally of the night.
The crowd got into it, even though they'd been doing the dreaded Wave in the seventh inning. Chris Richard, to that point 4-4 with three doubles (more about that a little later), fought Red Wings' closer Anthony Slama through an eight-pitch at-bat that ended with a line-drive single to center. Ryan Shealy followed with a walk, and J. J. Furmaniak, newly arrived from Montgtomery, pinch-ran for him. The tying runs were on base for Alvin Colina.
Let me reconfirm my reservations with the Sacrifice Front Desk. Oh, Mary-Quite-Contrary do I have reservations. I don't like them in theory, except in a few very specific situations, because they are essentially just giveaways of an out. And in this case I do not like them in practice, either, Sam I Am (there, I'm a book critic), because Alvin Colina is a power hitter. He may not be a great power hitter, or even a good one; but he is a big, strong dude and almost half of his hits this year have gone for extra bases. His job is to hit. I have no idea if he is a good bunter; I suspect he's rarely asked to do it, and thus not good at it. But I don't know.
Yes, of course he was instructed to bunt. Yes, the corner infielders came in. No, it didn't matter, because Colina's bunt was a little spurty foul pop-up that Rochester catcher Jose Morales caught easily for the first out of the inning, about 10 feet from home plate. I suppose you could argue that Colina's inability to get the bunt down ound up not mattering, because two of the Bulls' strugglingest hitters, Fernando Perez and Desmond Jennings, each struck out, and the game was over.
That was simply a failure to launch, plain and simple. But it was especially frustrating because, although they left a whopping 15 men on base and went 2-16 with runners in scoring position, the fact—the cold, hard fact, results be-damned—is that the Bulls delivered hard hits tonight. They sprayed line drives all over the field. The problem is that Rochester kept catching them—even when they virtually tried not to. And that's why the lucky-dog Red Wings won, 6-4.
How the lucky dog had its day after the jump. But before we leap, congratulations to Roy Halladay on his perfect game. That's just the 20th of all time—and, amazingly, the second one this year!
Probably the craziest Bulls game of 2009 was the one that featured a DBAP visit from an unaffiliated mascot called Reggy the Purple Party Dude. Reggy brought with him a sidekick called His Inflatable Nine-Foot Monkey, which was actually another mascot, i.e. a performer in a costume that indeed inflated to about nine feet tall. The Bulls won that crazy, crazy game with a three-run, 14th-inning rally capped by a double by King Kong himself, the great Bull in the Clutch, the Don of Doubles, Jon Weber. (Last night, Bulls' Media Relations Director Matt DeMargel could be heard wishfully invoking Weber's name during the Bulls' final at-bat.)
That crazy game was so crazy that I had to go out for a stiff drink before uncorking a nearly 4,000-word game story, which I finished somewhere around 5:00 AM. But as I walked home from the ballpark after last night's loss, I realized I had missed something essential and obvious about that crazy game last year: Of course the Bulls would win it, no matter the odds, which were extraordinarily long; they had a Rally Monkey. An inflatable (and fully inflated) nine-foot Rally Monkey. And King Kong. Last night, they didn't have either. Simple as that. The 2010 Bulls have not won a game in which they trailed after seven innings. (The 2009 edition did it nine times, one out of every six tries. Only one team last year had more or a higher rate of seventh-inning-or-later comebacks. That team happened to be the Rochester Red Wings.)
Last night, though, you just couldn't fault the lineup, especially as the game progressed and the clutchiness quotient increased. Dan Johnson led off the fifth inning with a liner that first baseman Brock Peterson grabbed at his shoetops, and Justin Ruggiano followed with a hot grounder that went more or less right to Toby Gardenhire. (Toby Gardenhire has a lifetime OPS of .565, which is awful. He has exactly one career homer, and he doesn't offset his lack of power with speed: he has 11 career steals and has been caught stealing 16 times. He is the son of Minnesota Twins' manager Ron Gardenhire. Rochester is Minnesota's Class AAA farm team. Hmmm...)
Anyway, Chris Richard followed these two crackling outs with his second double of the night (more on those doubles soon, I promise, really), which would have driven in at least one run and perhaps two.
In the next inning, Dan Johnson came up with the bases loaded and two out, and rocketed a ball to deep right field. But it was such a low-flying jet that Red Wings' right fielder Matt Macri was able to run it down on the warning track to end the inning.
Here is another opportunity to scarify sacrifices. Earlier in that inning, Fernando Perez hit a one-out single. If Fernando Perez gets on first base, he is supposed to try to steal second. To refrain from having Fernando steal second is like refraining from stepping on bubble wrap: the whole point of bubble wrap, after it fulfills its initial purpose (the official and boring business of protecting breakables), is the fun bonus activity of listening to it go pop-pop-pop! when you jump on it. Also, if after singling Fernando Perez goes pop-pop-pop! and steals second, he's in scoring position for Desmond Jennings, who is the Tampa Bay Rays' No. 1 hitting prospect.
So naturally, and depressingly, Jennings is instructed to lay down a sacrifice bunt on the very first pitch after Perez's single to right field. He does so, and Perez moves to second. So it's a "successful" sacrifice, but what has been gained? First of all, the Bulls trailed by three runs at this juncture. They needed to add baserunners, not advance one. Second, there were now two outs, and it would take a base hit to score Perez. Had he been allowed to steal second, Jennings himself, slumping though he may be, could have a chance to get that base hit. So you had the same situation, but one more out—one out simply given away. I know that this is the minors and development and training and practice and blah blah blah, but I'd rather see Perez practice stealing bases here (despite his phenomenal speed, he's still improving his base-swiping technique) and Jennings practice getting himself out of hitting slumps.
What really sucked about this move was that the next two batters, Elliot Johnson and Angel Chavez, both drew walks off of Red Wings' reliever Tim Lahey (who "earned" an undeserved win, even though six of the 12 batters he faced reached base), loading the bases for Dan Johnson.
Now who knows what would have happened had Jennings not bunted? Maybe he would have struck out, as he did three times last night. But we'll never know, because he never got the chance—he was simply put out—sacrificed, pointlessly—before he could step up to the plate. Perhaps Dan Johnson would have then batted with a run already in and the tying run on second base. Perhaps he would have seen different pitches from Lahey. Perhaps he would have tried simply to poke a single somewhere rather than drive one to the gap. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
In the seventh inning, the first two Bulls singled off of Lahey, and he was replaced with Kyle Waldrop, who fared well in relief on Thursday. Ryan Shealy battled Waldrop through five tough pitches, and with a 2-2 count stung a lethal liner—right at shortstop Trevor Plouffe. The ball was hit so hard that it nearly popped out of Plouffe's glove as it knocked him backward a step. One out, and Alvin Colina followed with a lame little flare to center that, naturally, dropped in for an RBI single. Perez and Jennings both grounded into fielder's choices to end the inning. Elliot Johnson led off the eighth with a sharp line drive toward right-centerfield that seemed to have him ticketed for second base, but it didn't carry well and it was caught for an out. Dan Johnson's single one out later would have driven Elliot in.
"Bad luck on our part and good luck on their part," Charlie Montoyo said afterward of the whole ballgame. He was referring not just to all of those caught line drives, but also to yet another example of bad umpiring that cost the Bulls runs. In the second inning, with Carlos Hernandez in trouble—two runs were already in and Matt Tolbert was on second base with two outs—Matt Macri hit a bouncer down the third base line that looked foul but was ruled fair by home plate umpire Steve Barga and resulted in an RBI double. Third baseman Dan Johnson pointed to the spot in foul territory, shy of the third base bag, where the ball had made a mark: that evidence proved it was foul. But umpires hate to be shown up, even with the truth, and Johnson's protests could be construed as disrespect. Charlie Montoyo raced out to protect his player, Barga was unnecessarily nasty to him, and the call stood. Danny Valencia followed with another double to drive in Macri. The next batter, Wilson Ramos, singled to shallow right field, and Valencia was waved home. Justin Ruggiano's throw was up the third base line. Alvin Colina caught it and made a swipe at the passing Valencia (a Passing Valencia is also the name of a seasonal wind that blows across the Iberian peninsula and is essential to a good citrus harvest; it's pronounced "Pathing Valenthia," of course). It may have been a phantom tag, hard to tell. Barga couldn't seem to tell either, or even to decide whether Valencia was out or safe (he certainly touched home plate), so Colina quickly ran over and tagged him again (which suggested, possibly, that he knew he hadn't tagged Valencia the first time). Barga called him out, over Valencia's ardent protests. A bit of good luck, perhaps, but Barga's ruling on Macri's cornerball had already cost the Bulls a run.
An aside, but a forceful one: Wow, has umpiring in the International League started to blow like a Passing Valencia! Seriously, something needs to be done to improve it, and fast. We shouldn't have to be writing about umpires costing teams runs every game.
Another guy who cost the Bulls a run was a Durham Bull: our good friend Angel Chavez, who perhaps felt, after offsetting his two-run error on Thursday with a three-run homer on Friday, that he needed to balance the books on Saturday. With two outs in the first inning and men on first and third, he misplayed an easy grounder at shortstop to let in an unearned run. With J. J. Furmaniak's arrival yesterday, I'll be very surprised to see Chavez in the lineup this afternoon. Surprised and disappointed. Furmaniak is a light-hitting, slick-fielding shortstop. He's finally here, after a lengthy injury delay. he's a glove-man. Play him.
Also, more ammunition for Charlie Montoyo's anti-walk arsenal: The Bulls lost by two runs last night. Guess how many of the seven Rochester Red Wings who walked came around to score? Two.
So, as promised: Chris Richard and His Amazing Doubles. The Bulls' franchise leader in homers hit doubles in his last two at-bats on Friday, and then doubled in his first three at-bats on Saturday night to make it five two-baggers in a row. I can't find any documentation online, but I'll be amazed if that doesn't at least tie a rare record. If so, that's twice now in about a year that Richard has achieved a remarkable statistical feat. In the second-craziest game of 2009, he hit two grand slams in a single game against the Louisville Bats to lead the Bulls to a remarkable 11-inning win. As it stands now, Richard leads the International League in doubles (and is in the top ten in batting average, slugging, OPS and on-base percentage). With Jon Weber gone to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Richard seems to have taken the Doubles Mantle on his shoulders with great assurance. He was 5-5 last night, is batting .405 over his last 10 games and .400 overall with runners on base and two outs. Dan Johnson may still be the Kongiest King on the team in Jon Weber's stead, but Richard is lately aping him.
If only the Bulls can get themselves a complementary Rally Monkey.
Coupla quick notes:
* Talked briefly with Jason Cromer, who relieved Carlos Hernandez last night (Hernandez took the loss and is 3-3). Cromer hurt his elbow playing winter ball in Venezuela, basically just from overuse. He set a career high in innings pitched last season, and with the extra work in Venezuela, Cromer just asked too much of his arm. He also said that he mildly hyperextended the elbow making an urgent underhanded throw to first in a game. He said he feels healthy, but I have to wonder about that. He was dreadful on Thursday, walking the bases loaded and taking the loss. Last night, he looked sharp for an inning or so, retiring the first five men he faced, but then collapsed. Matt Macri singled, and then Cromer lost control, walking two men in a row. He then engaged in an 11-pitch at-bat against Wilson Ramos, and Ramos kept fouling off pretty much every kind of pitch Cromer throws—the fastball (which is still down in velocity a degree or two), the slider, the change—until Cromer finally walked him. Cromer just doesn't have that out-pitch right now, nothing to make hitters swing and miss, nothing that will make them fail. It will be interesting to see how he fares while he regains his arm strength. He could wind up playing a major role as the season winds on.
* Two of the last three nights, I have been the only member of the media covering the Bulls. (The story you may read in the Durham paper is actually provided by the Bulls, I think.) Consider this an apology on behalf of the local incarnation of the fourth estate that none of the dailies can be bothered to send a reporter to the DBAP each night the Bulls are in town. In addition to my garrulous and winding (or perhaps just windy) reports, readers deserve digest-style game writeups by the local newspapers, if for no other reason than to get differing perspectives. The Bulls post a game story of their own for every game, although it tends to be unapologetically (and appropriately) one-sided; and there is Chris Wise over at the Watching Durham Bulls Baseball blog (which seems to have taken a couple of days off, I see). But the high-circulation publications ought to be chastised for this dereliction of duty. Yes, there are a lot of college sports out there, and certainly ACC basketball deserves front-and-center attention; but every night at the DBAP you're seeing world-class professionals. Even the worst Triple-A player is just a step away from baseball's biggest stage. The college diamond is a much lower-elevation proving ground. Besides, who can stand the sound of aluminum bats?
* On the subject of the biggest baseball stage and world-class professionals, here's something I was thinking about as I walked to the ballpark last night: the 2009 season was notable for an absence: how little Tampa deal-making included Durham Bulls. Rhyne Hughes, who didn't even join the team until June, was a late trade chip (for catcher Greg Zaun), but that was pretty much it. The Rays probably need a reliever, unless they want to roll the dice on a guy out of Durham's bullpen (most of whom they've already seen), and they have a glut of outfielders: Jennings, Ruggiano and Perez could all help another big-league team, and Matt Joyce finishes rehab soon. And if Dan Johnson continues to hit with extreme prejudice, sooner or later he'll force himself onto a major-league squad. Meanwhile, catcher John Jaso has turned heads (and shaved his own) in Tampa while filling in for the injured Kelly Shoppach, who will probably return to action soon. Has Jaso done enough to make himself a trade chip? To make Alvin Colina or Jose Lobaton or even big-leaguer Dioner Navarro expendable? And what of the dynamic duo, Winston Abreu and Dale Thayer, still cleaning up the late innings in the Dirty D? What to do with Joe Bateman, who has been superb, or the impressive Mike Ekstrom? "I like my bullpen right now," Charlie Montoyo told me after Friday's game. The question is how long he gets to keep it, and for that matter the rest of his team. The Rays have the best record in baseball about a third of the way into the season, and they may very well be much more aggressive than they were last year in adding pieces to an already formidable ballclub. I'm predicting significant running of Bulls as the summer heats up. Which it will, because I'm also predicting a hot, humid summer.
Speaking of guys other teams would like to trade for, Baseball America's current No. 2 overall prospect, Jeremy Hellickson, pitches for Durham at the DBAP at 5:05 PM this afternoon. The Silent Cyclone nearly threw a no-hitter last time out. He ain't monkeying around now. See you at the DBAP.