Not to move fingers anywhere near the panic button, but Bulls fans might want to at least worry a bit before feeling perhaps slightly reassured that we're much closer to the end of the march than the beginning. That's because the surging Charlotte Knights, who came into the game in second place in the South Division, behind the front-running Bulls, won 6-2 to creep within eight games of the lead. There are 53 games remaining in the schedule, and even if the Bulls go, say, 26-27, the Knights would have to win about two thirds of their games in order to overtake Durham. That doesn't seem likely, but you wouldn't be blamed for fretting a little. Charlotte has good starting pitching, and as their manager Chris Chambliss told me after the game, some of their young, potent hitters are starting to find themselves after early-season difficulty. The 3-4-5 batters for Charlotte in last night's lineup haven't hit for average, and they've struck out a lot, but they also have 44 home runs between them (that's as many as any three Bulls, even if you include Dan Johnson's 24), and they were 4-11 last night. This looks like a much better team than its record.
Meanwhile, if you look in the right places, you can descry some widening cracks in the Bulls' armor. If Charlotte can manage to pull off a sweep of this post-vacation, home-and-home, four-game series, they will suddenly find themselves just five games behind the Bulls, with 10 more head-to-head contests before the end of the season, and with Durham about to play an eight-game homestand against two of the best teams in the league, Columbus and Syracuse. These next 11 games are beginning to seem like the critical stretch of the season for Durham: take care of business—even a 6-5 mark would probably suffice—and that just about slams the door; go into a skid, and you've potentially got trouble.
Got your attention? That ain't the (second) half of it. Plenty more vexation after the jump—and a little relief, too.
Bulls' manager Charlie Montoyo, who spent the so-called "break" coaching in the Futures Game in Anaheim, managing the Triple-A All-Star Game in Allentown, flying to Washington, DC to meet up with his family, and then driving down to Durham on Thursday (he arrived at the DBAP only two hours before game time), writes up a short report of each game right after it ends. Asked for his assessment last night, Montoyo gestured at his game report and replied: "Easy. Their starter pitched good and ours didn't."
It's true that the Knights' Lucas Harrell, whom the Bulls faced twice last year (he walked 11 in 10 total innings), outpitched Durham's Richard De Los Santos, who had trouble locating pretty much all of his pitches except his changeup, which kept him marginally in the game. And it's true that the game might have been different had De Los Santos made better two-out pitches—four of the five runs he surrendered came with two outs. But there's more to last night's loss than the lopsided case of Harrell-v.-De Los Santos. The Bulls grounded into five double plays (!), which may very well be a team record (perhaps the in-house stat-keepers can tell us), and wasted a bases-loaded, no-out chance in the fifth; it was 6-2 after a two-run single by Fernando Perez and a grand slam would have tied the game and electrified the crowd, but after Harrell struck out J. J. Furmaniak for the second time in as many innings, Justin Ruggiano—the reigning International League Player of the Week—hit into one of those double plays, not only ending the inning but keeping Dan Johnson from getting an at-bat with the chance to do major damage. (Not that the Knights would have let him: Johnson walked three times in four trips to the plate last night.) The Player of the Week Curse continues, by the way—ask Carlos Torres of the Knights, or Jeremy Hellickson, or Aneury Rodriguez, all of whom struggled after being so honored.
The Bulls' bases-loaded choke in the fifth was followed by a first-and-third, one-out threat in the sixth, handed to them by reliever Freddy Dolsi, who throws hard but has serious control issues and walked two men. Dioner Navarro, however, hit into, yep, another double play, and that was basically the ballgame. The Bulls continue to be a team that struggles terribly to come from behind, and last night they looked sluggish and uninterested, as if still partially on their All-Star break. Harrell's game is to get ground balls, and the Bulls, despite their patience—they walked seven times (Chris Chambliss noted, ruefully, how well Durham's generally veteran clubs have always, over the last few years, worked pitchers into deep counts and drawn a lot of bases on balls, forcing opposing hurlers out of games prematurely)—despite their patience did not make an out in the air until the bottom of the ninth inning—whereupon Angel Chavez hit into the team's fifth and final twin-killing to end the night.
De Los Santos was the victim of a bit of bad luck: some dinky bloop hits that caused substantial damage, a slow ground ball that somehow got past the unspeedy Joe Dillon at second base, a close play at third base on which De Los Santos didn't get what could have been a rally-killing call. But he also made too many mistakes in the middle of the plate, and Charlotte exploited those mistakes. The Knights, along with the Louisville Bats, look like the team most likely to make a run toward the playoffs from under .500.
That isn't to say it is likely, though. The Knights are young (ha ha), and the Bulls have a good lineup, comeback struggles aside, and an excellent bullpen (about which more good news below). The only immediate cause for concern is in the starting rotation, which isn't very formidable as currently arranged. Jeremy Hellickson, whose next start was pushed back to Tuesday in order to keep his season innings count down (he has logged nearly as many starts as the Rays' stalwarts, and 20% more innings than newbie Wade Davis), is reliable, but he might not stay with the team much longer if the Tampa Bay brain trust decides to give him a shot at the big leagues. Carlos Hernandez has been up and down, is injury-prone, and generally doesn't go deep into games. Heath Phillips leads the league in home runs allowed, and De Los Santos, although he's been surprisingly effective given his history (before this season he hadn't pitched above Class A since 2008), shouldn't be expected to carry a heavy load. He was done after four innings last night.
And so it suddenly seems as if a lot is riding on Virgil Vasquez, who starts tonight at the DBAP. He has veteran experience, good control, and the ability to give you seven innings every time out. If he can hold down the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Hellickson—until the Silent Cyclone's inevitable callup to the majors—he'll stabilize a rotation that looks suddenly vulnerable. And if the Bulls should, let's say, split these four games with Charlotte, they'll still be nine games ahead with 50 left to play, and this worrywart game post will be forgotten in the general happiness. We'll know soon enough, as the misnamed second "half" races toward its foreshortened Labor Day finish.
* It had become common knowledge that Bulls' reliever R. J. Swindle had a July 15 opt-out clause in his contract. He chose not to exercise it. What fewer of us knew was that Winston Abreu had that same eject button on his seat, and he, too, decided not to push it. Had the Bulls lost those two players, they'd suddenly have been in rather serious trouble in the late innings, with Joe Bateman and Dale Thayer the only go-to relievers. (Mike Ekstrom hasn't been as convincing lately.) "I feel like I have two new players," Montoyo said of Abreu and Swindle after they opted in rather than out.
* In addition to the five double plays and the only-one-flyout oddities, something else weird happened last night: a catcher to pitcher putout that didn't involve a wild pitch. With Rob Hudson on second base and two outs in the eighth inning, Buck Coats smacked a grounder back up the middle. It hit Aneury Rodriguez's foot and bounced high in the air toward the first base line. Catcher Dioner Navarro chased it down while Rodriguez stood, perhaps stunned, for a moment. Finally Navarro motioned to Baby A-Rod to cover home plate as Hudson rounded and third and charged home. Rodriguez arrived at the plate just in time to receive Navarro's throw, and swipe-tagged Hudson, who was called out on a very close play. (Chris Chambliss argued the call, unsuccessfully of course.) It could have been scored a 1-2-1 fielder's choice, but Coats was credited with an infield single and the out went 2-1. Always fun to see some novelties out there.
* I argued last week that Dan Johnson should be called up to the majors, or at least traded to a team that can give him a big-league job. But after a conversation in the Press Box last night, I doubt the Rays will trade Johnson. If a team is really looking for a power bat to put them over the hump and get them to the playoffs, they're much more likely to pull the trigger on a splashier deal that would net them, say, the Brewers' Prince Fielder or the Nationals' Adam Dunn, rather than reach down into another team's farm system for an unproven player. Given that Johnson, who is 30 years old, isn't really a "prospect," it's unlikely that even a team who would make the smaller trade and acquire him would want to give up much in return. In that case, it makes more sense for the Rays to let Johnson keep swinging away in Durham until some other trade (of B. J. Upton, perhaps) occurs, rosters expand or, less happily, an injury hits or a player like Matt Joyce isn't able to perform well enough to keep the fourth-outfielder job. Johnson is probably going to wind up as an insurance policy who becomes a pinch-hitting power bat after the September 1 roster expansion. Until then, he might as well try to break some team records. Since 1930, a year when one Bull hit 39 homers and another hit 37 (were they playing in a little league park that year or something?), no Bull has hit more than 36—Kevin Witt did that just recently, in 2006. Johnson has 24. And no Bull has topped 127 RBI since 1947. Johnson is at 78.
(Aside: looking over the Bulls' all-time records, guess who holds the single-season strikeout record for pitchers? A fellow you might have heard of: Johnny Vander Meer, who is the only pitcher ever to throw two consecutive major-league no-hitters, for Cincinnati in 1938. Vander Meer fanned a whopping 295 batters as a Bull in 1936. Suffice it to say that he thus owns two records that will never been broken.)
* Durham reliever Darin Downs gave up Charlotte's sixth run last night, on a booming fifth-inning double by Brent Morel, whose dirve to straightaway center field missed being a home run by about two feet. (Dare I say Morel's blast was a mushroom cloud?) Downs, called up from Montgomery in late June as an emergency fix, has now allowed seven runs in his last 4 2/3 innings. Granted that Downs had excellent numbers down in Montgomery, and that the Rays are, like every team, trying to develop left-handed pitching (they even went out and re-signed 41-year-old Brian Shouse, a former Ray who is actually injured and can't even play right now); but Downs doesn't appear to have figured out how to get Triple-A hitters out and seems to need more seasoning in Double-A. I'm sort of curious about Dane De La Rosa, an Independent-League reclamation project who is 6-foot-6, weighs 220 pounds and has impressive numbers with the Biscuits, including a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 5:1. It seems his big problem right now is that he throws right-handed.
* As mentioned above, the suddenly crucial Virgil Vasquez tries to lead the Bulls out of their moderate limbo tonight. He'll be opposed by Jeff Marquez—like Vasquez, a guy with a Latino last name who is actually from California. (Add to that category the Knights' Carlos Torres, who hails from Santa Cruz and whom the Bulls will not have to face in this series: Torres, like Hellickson, is getting some extra post-break rest; he started the All-Star game for the International League.) The Bulls got to Marquez for five runs in six innings back on April 20. The big blow was a three-run homer by, of course, Dan Johnson. See you at the DBAP at 7:05 PM Friday night.