by Adam Sobsey
These seven-inning doubleheader games are uncomfortable and even a little unpleasant, like watching a movie on fast-forward. You're at the ballpark for over four hours, but the games themselves whiz by in a dizzy blur. Whichever team has a multi-run lead by, say, the fourth inning, seems sure to win, and that's what happened last night. In fact, the Indians were up 1-0 after just three pitches when Kevin Melillo took Virgil Vasquez deep for a solo homer leading off the top of the first inning. It was 2-0 two outs later after John Bowker hit a fly-ball double off the Blue Monster—an out in most ballparks—to score Ryan Doumit, the big-league catcher on a rehab assignment with Indianapolis. Doumit doubled the lead to 4-0 with a two-run homer in the third inning, and that was plenty for the Indians' starter, Brian Burres, a former starter for the Baltimore Orioles who kept the Bulls off the board until the sixth inning, when Joe Dillon doubled home Elliot Johnson to score what would turn out to be Durham's only run. The blink-and-you'll-miss-it game was finished in less than two hours.
Some notes after the jump, including sudden injury problems that have cropped up at a weirdly sensitive moment in the Bulls' 2010 season.
The game itself was rather an anticlimax after the Bulls' 10-run outburst in the first game of the doubleheader, and also because Indianapolis' four runs came on a few brief flares of offense. Durham starter Virgil Vasquez took the loss (he's now 6-2), but he wasn't terrible by any means. In fact he pitched a "complete game," albeit of the seven-inning variety. It was the first time a Bulls starter has gone the distance since 2008. Vasquez was pretty effective other than the two homers, even though he didn't use his offspeed pitches much at all; it seemed to be almost all fastballs of a few different varieties. They generally worked, but it seemed to me that Vasquez wasn't using his changeup very much at all to aid in keeping hitters, especially left-handers, off-balance, although I could have missed some of them. (I confess I was still frantically trying to finish up my report of game one during the rocky first inning of the second game, when Vasquez used up 24 of his 101 pitches.) All in all, though, seven innings of four-run baseball is very often good enough to win, especially when you're backed by the Bulls' generally dangerous lineup.
But with Chris Richard and Jose Lobaton replaced in game two by J. J. Furmaniak and Omar Luna, that lineup wasn't quite as potent. Burres allowed five walks, and that was the only reason the Bulls were really in the game at all. Although one of those walks, to Elliot Johnson in the sixth inning, led to the Bulls' single run (Joe Dillon doubled him home), it was actually the fifth inning in which the Bulls were going to make a game of it, if at all. Dillon led off with a double—he was 4-6 in the twinbill—that center fielder Brandon Moss might have had a play on had he read the ball better. Walks to Leslie Anderson and Angel Chavez (helped by a smallish strike zone) loaded the bases with one out. Omar Luna hit a tailing liner to right, but Bowker was playing him toward the line and caught the ball for the second out. Desmond Jennings then hit one on the nose, but his line drive to center field was caught by Moss for the third out. Had it dropped for a single, which it appeared at first it might, two runs would have scored and the whole game would have changed. But that's how it goes.
Vasquez, for what it's worth, has allowed seven home runs in his last five starts, covering 30 innings. That, I suppose, is what you accept as the downside of a guy who throws a lot of strikes, has fly-ball tendencies (12 outs in the air last night against five on the ground), doesn't throw hard (topped out at 90 mph; 38 strikeouts in 63 innings this year) and pitches up in the zone. He has allowed only 14 walks in those 63 innings, exactly two per nine innings pitched, and that control makes the homers less damaging. In a lot of ways he's like a right-handed Heath Phillips, the Bulls' strike-throwing, homer-happy lefty. These two pitchers are going to be heavily relied upon as the season winds down and the playoffs begin, so keeping the bases relatively clear of runners will be the key to their success. The homers are going to happen; there's just no getting around it, and it isn't really the end of the world in the properly managed context.
I say "heavily relied upon" for a few reasons. First and foremost is that Jeremy Hellickson, according to Charlie Montoyo, will indeed be restricted to a three-inning/45-pitch limit for the foreseeable future, and that future can be foreseen until precisely Sept. 1—perhaps even before—when roster expansion makes his callup to the majors inevitable. As a consequence, he won't be much of a factor as a Bull for the rest of the season. I asked Montoyo if he might piggyback newly-promoted Jake McGee on Hellickson's starts, and Montoyo answered that that was a possibility, although the idea didn't seem to have occurred to him until I mentioned it.
The second reason is Richard De Los Santos. He pitched well again in game one, earning his 11th win (that's second-most in the league behind Hellickson). It was his fourth straight strong performance, but note that he was pulled after just 85 pitches with two outs in the sixth inning. Expect him not to break 90 pitches in his starts: As I mentioned not too long ago, De Los Santos, who has had two major surgeries in his career, is already well past his personal season-high in innings pitched, and the Rays are trying to minimize his workload so as not to push him into dangerous overuse territory.
The third reason is the Brian Baker/Carlos Hernandez duo. Hernandez remains on the disabled list and there's no word on his return; even when healthy, he can't be relied on to pitch deep into a game. That tendency has worsened lately—he's down to about 5 1/3 innings per start over his last eight outings. Baker, meanwhile, was intended as a reliever, although he made 18 starts in 2009 for Montgomery in Class AA. But because he hadn't thrown heavy innings until Hernandez's injuries pushed him into starting duty, he isn't "stretched out," as they say. He has topped 80 pitches in a game just once, has not gone more than six innings in a start this season, and, it should be noted, was shelled in his last appearance, tagged for eight hits, four walks and 10 runs in just three innings at Pawtucket.
So there are question marks surrounding three-fifths of the Bulls' current starting rotation, and with Hellickson's imminent return to Tampa, they'll get reprinted in boldface. Surely reinforcements from Montgomery can be expected as necessary—I'm betting on Alexander Torres at some point—but only as necessary: Going forward it's a bit of a patchwork, and, to return to the premise, it's why Heath Phillips, who starts tonight, and Vasquez will have to be the main oxen pulling the dray. And as always, the Durham bullpen—which has gotten plenty of rest over the last three days (Joe Bateman's four outs in game one last night were the sum total of their work)—will get heavy use.
A few personnel notes:
* Fernando Perez is, as I speculated, injured. His left shoulder, which was operated on in the off-season for a "slap tear" in his labrum, has begun bothering him again. Swinging a bat is very difficult for him, although he can play the outfield (he throws right-handed) and did so as a late-inning defensive replacement in both games last night. He probably isn't going to the disabled list, but needs to rest the shoulder and do a little physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around it.
* That timing is bad, despite the arrival of Leslie Anderson from Montgomery, because Justin Ruggiano fouled a ball off his foot in the second game last night. It was his third and final at-bat, and he finished it out (he struck out swinging), but he limped around between pitches after initially hitting the deck in pain. It looked bad, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him miss a couple of games. That probably means an outfield of Anderson, Desmond Jennings, and either Elliot Johnson or Chris Richard.
* I wrote some about Anderson in my game one report. There's not too much to add here. He played first base in game two, and because Vasquez got so many outs in the air he wasn't very busy—although he did handle a difficult rundown play well, after Jonathan Van Every got himself picked off first base (he actually broke for second while Vasquez was holding set at the belt) and, with his speed, made the pickle into a 1-3-6-3 tennis match. Anderson showed good reflexes and savvy in finishing off the play. One game is, of course, insufficient evidence for an assessment, but he looked, in all facets of his game, like he knew what he was doing out there. His at-bats were aggressive but intelligent; his work in the field was strong (he played the Blue Monster very well); and his baserunning looked good: He runs well, and on first base in the second inning of game one, he read Dioner Navarro's drive to the right-centerfield gap very quickly (Navarro wound up with a double) and practically bunny-hopped around the bases right behind Joe Dillon, who had been on second. Anderson is also, I discovered later, despite his apparent lankiness, very amply built, especially in his upper body. He isn't really thought of as a power hitter, but his arms and chest could help him become one. He was upbeat and sociable in the clubhouse, too; if he has had any acculturation problems since coming over from Cuba in March (he apparently speaks no English), they don't appear to be active right now.
* As we learned late yesterday afternoon, Dale Thayer was recalled to Tampa. The word out there is that he will probably return after just a day or two, although of course you never know. Assuming he does come back to Durham in short order, someone will have to go off the roster. Whether this means another phantom injury for Omar Luna, the demotion to Montgomery of Darin Downs or perhaps Aneury Rodriguez, or, more troublingly, a stint on the disabled list for Ruggiano or even Perez, remains to be seen. Also, Dan Johnson might very well be back when Carlos Pena returns from the major-league disabled list, which he could do as soon as August 16.
So with all of this turnover, injury and uncertainty, and with September 1 roster expansion getting ever closer, it's no wonder that Charlie Montoyo, not feeling especially talkative anyway after four-and-a-half hours' worth of doubleheader action, went to the line he used often last year but hasn't had to recite much in this relatively stable 2010 season, which has been relatively free of upheaval: "I'm just going day to day," he disclaimed, when asked about what would happen when Thayer returned. He's got enough transition to deal with in his clubhouse; why worry about players who aren't on his roster right now? "I don't even know who I got," he added, and gave a rueful smile. (It wasn't clear, even to Montoyo, whether Jake McGee had been officially added to the roster, although he was in uniform and in the dugout.) Montoyo can afford the smile, because his team has already done most of its heavy lifting this season, and can lope rather than sprint toward the playoffs. The Bulls still have a 13-game lead on second-place Charlotte, with 30 left to play.
Heath Phillips starts for Durham tonight at 7:05 p.m. I'll see you at the DBAP then.