by Adam Sobsey
That second, game-ending grand-slam came off of Ben Jukich, a left-hander who had been brought in by Rick Sweet specifically to face the lefty Richard. Needless to say, it didn't work.
Last night, the Bulls led 4-0 when Richard came up to hit in the fourth inning with one out and the bases loaded. They had already touched Jukich, who is now a starter—the Bats' best since Sam LeCure and Matt Maloney were called up to the majors—for five hits, and Jukich had allowed three walks, as well. He was further hurt by not one but two catcher's interference calls against Louisville backstop Devin Mesoraco. That had put a total of 11 men on base in just 3 1/3 innings against Jukich, and the Bulls had managed to plate four of them.
But they had really hit only two balls hard to that point, one an opposite-field liner by J. J. Furmaniak to lead off the third inning—he wound up with a triple when Bats right fielder Sean Henry had a little trouble corralling the ball in the corner—and a ringing single lined high off the Blue Monster by light-hitting catcher Craig Albernaz to lead off the fourth. Otherwise, it was sneaky grounders and broken-bat bloops.
After Albernaz's leadoff hit—he thought about trying for second, which would have been a bad idea, but was lucky that he slipped rounding first base and had to retreat to the bag—Elliot Johnson followed a Furmaniak strikeout with an infield hit, and Justin Ruggiano walked to load the bases.
Jukich had thrown Richard numerous curveballs in previous at-bats, and he did so again here, making Richard look foolish with a couple of them. But Richard evened the count at 2-2. Later, he said he guessed that Jukich would try to strike him out with another curveball, and that is indeed what Jukich threw—and Richard launched a majestic grand slam into the right-field seats, the third grand slam of his Bulls career, and the second off of Jukich. That made it 8-0—the first time in two weeks that the once mighty Bulls have scored that many runs in a game—and effectively put the ballgame to bed early. They had to play the rest of it anyway, of course, but the remainder of the evening was a fun and quiet descent, despite a couple of innings under light rain, into Sunday's decisive Game Five. One team advances to play Columbus, which won its series over Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and the other goes home for the season. If Louisville triumphs today, they will take on a division rival whom they have already played 21 times this season.
Sunday's full tilt boogie will be a matchup of southpaws, with Durham's Bobby Livingston facing Louisville's Jeremy Horst at 5:05 p.m. These are both unlikely starters for this game. More on why after the jump, along with further thoughts about Richard's grand slam and the stellar work of Bulls starting pitcher Paul Phillips, who, for the second year in a row, came up to Durham from Double-A just before the end of the regular season and tossed five victorious innings against Louisville in a playoff elimination game.
So of course, the thing that was on everyone's mind after the game was this: Did Chris Richard know who he was facing when hit the grand slam, and that he had already hit one off of him? "I thought it was the same guy, but I didn't know, though. I'm not one of those guys that really remembers pitchers that much," Richard said. That makes a fair amount of sense in Triple-A, where the roster turnover is so high that you don't face the same pitcher dozens of times in your career, as you are likelier to do in the big leagues: It just isn't worth cataloging everyone you hit against.
In any case, I could swear I saw a split-second, respectful exchange between Jukich and Richard as Richard crossed home plate after his homer; but regardless, cool as it is that Richard now owns two of his three taurine grand slams against one pitcher, it's really just a fluke.
You might be inclined to say the same of Paul Phillips's fine start against the Bats last night: He threw five scoreless innings, allowing two hits and a walk and striking out six. Phillips is a career reliever who made his first-ever professional start for the Bulls late in 2009, his fifth year in the minors. He made one more start in the playoffs against Louisville, and then went back to the Montgomery bullpen to begin 2010. Phillips did start three games for the Biscuits at the end of this season, called into emergency duty, and was generally very good.
He also faced the Carolina Mudcats five times in relief in 2010. The Mudcats are the Class AA affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, and the Bats are the Reds' Triple-A farm team. Five 2010 Mudcats were in the Louisville lineup last night, recently promoted to the next level. Thus, as Phillips noted after the Bulls' Friday loss to Louisville, he was quite familiar with more than half of the hitters he saw on Saturday. Also, for what it's worth, he had faced second-year Bats Danny Dorn and Todd Frazier in the playoffs last year (Dorn hit a home run off of him).
Phillips threw seven scoreless innings versus the Mudcats in 2010, allowing five hits, walking no one, and striking out eight. So his effectiveness last night was really no fluke, no surprise. He knew who he was facing and what he had to do. "I was relaxed, I was ready," he said afterward. "I was excited. But I felt in control of myself, which was important." Phillips threw first-pitch strikes to 16 of the 21 batters he faced, produced 14 swings-and-misses with just 78 pitches—his limit was 80—and used his breaking ball well (he calls it a slider, but it looks more like a slurve) to keep Louisville off balance.
"I didn't have great command," he said, but added that his fastball had lots of movement. This was important, because the Bats are a fairly aggressive bunch at the plate, and they weren't shy about taking their cuts. The late life on Phillips's fastball, which sat between 91-93 mph, kept Louisville's hitters from making flush contact. Only one ball was hit really hard, Devin Mesoraco's two-out double in the fifth.
In a way, Louisville's confident swings hurt them, Phillips thought: "Better hitters always have confidence, and they always think they can hit you—and if they think they can hit you they're gonna swing." The result was the Bats over-committing to Phillips's offerings, often helping him retire them. They swung at exactly half of his 78 pitches, but I doubt half of them were actually in the strike zone.
Jake McGee had a dominant sixth inning, needing just nine pitches to strike out two batters—one on a diving slider that Zack Cozart swung over—and get another to ground out weakly. Note, too, that McGee did a fine job hustling to cover first base on Dorn's inning-ending bleeder wide of first base. Chris Richard fielded it and made a fine toss to McGee just as Dorn raced across the bag, and umpire David Rackley called Dorn out on a very close play.
I have to think that McGee has put himself in a good position to be called up to the big leagues very soon, unless the Rays would rather protect his arm and save him for 2011. No, his breaking ball is not a polished pitch, but McGee's fastball has late zip and good movement, and the breaking ball only has to be used sparingly if McGee is also used sparingly. I can't help but wonder, if the Bulls move on to the Governors' Cup finals, whether McGee will head to Tampa and the Rays will add 6-foot-6 reliever Dane De La Rosa to the Durham roster. De La Rosa has been in a Bulls uniform throughout the Louisville series, and it would be somewhat pointless to have him traveling with the club unless there was some thought of using him. One also muses about the presence of infielder Drew Anderson; are the Rays considering giving Elliot Johnson a shot with the big-league club next week? Or are the unrisen Biscuits simply here to get a taste of Triple-A baseball, with no thought of throwing them into action? If so, this appears to be a new policy; there were no seconds with the team during the 2009 playoffs, as I recall.
A few notes before I sign off on this unusually short post—8-1 blowouts in the postseason don't give you as much material as close games do (as Rick Sweet put it, a corollary to that notion and a little salvo aimed toward the Bulls' clubhouse: "I'd rather lose like this than 2-1"):
* J. J. Furmaniak has done a great job in the leadoff spot in the Bulls' lineup in this series. He is 6-14 with four walks, for a gaudy .556 on-base percentage. Last night, he saw 20 pitches, not only reaching base four more times but also doing the leadoff man's work of helping his teammates see what the opposing pitcher was throwing.
* Dale Thayer looked good again, throwing two scoreless relief innings following McGee. After throwing 27 pitches last night, Thayer is probably unavailable for Sunday's game, barring extra innings or some other unusual circumstances; but it's good to see him make a strong end-of-season showing after an up-and-down year in which his numbers inflated in some of the wrong places. If the Bulls advance to the next round of the playoffs, he may have pitched his way back into a higher-leverage spot in the bullpen, especially with Mike Ekstrom now in Tampa and McGee poised, perhaps, to join him there.
* Brian Shouse—or "Old Man Shouse," as some of us have taken to calling the 41-year-old (a bit unkind, I know; it just sounds so good)—gave up a long solo homer to Todd Frazier in the ninth inning, the conclusion of a nine-pitch at-bat in which Frazier kept fouling off Shouse's attempts at out-pitches. Frazier is a good hitter (ask Alex Cobb), but the sense you get is that Shouse just doesn't have a finishing pitch. After Frazier's homer, Michael Griffin ripped a drive off the Blue Monster. Foolishly, he tried for a double, and Rashad Eldridge—just inserted as a ninth-inning defensive replacement for Leslie Anderson—fielded the ball and threw Griffin out. The point, though, is that Shouse can't be thought of as a reliable option. To some degree, Charlie Montoyo was fortunate that he had an opportunity to get an inning out of him in an essentially flameproof, eight-run situation. "He could pitch [Sunday] again," Montoyo offered, but you have to think that that would only happen in a situation of major desperation. Joe Bateman and Winston Abreu are well rested, and if Bobby Livingston can give the Bulls six good innings, Montoyo may not need anyone else. That, I bet, is what Montoyo is hoping.
* But can Livingston manufacture that best-case scenario? He did so in his last three starts of the regular season, allowing six runs in 19 1/3 total innings, walking only three batters (although he also had only six strikeouts—and none at all against Norfolk in six innings in his last start). Livingston has made just five appearances for Durham, which is his third team this season and the eighth major-league affiliation of his 10-year career—he started for none other than Louisville in 2007 and 2008. This year, he pitched against the Bats twice, back in May when he was a Buffalo Bison. The results were inconclusive. In the first of the starts, the box score suggests that Livingston dazzled Rick Sweet's club, tossing eight innings of scoreless, three-hit baseball. In the second, though, he lasted just four innings, allowing nine hits and six runs. Of course, only three players remain in the Louisville lineup from the May edition of the team (Balentien, Dorn and Frazier—and catcher Wilkin Castillo, if Rick Sweet decides to rest Mesoraco and his sudden catcher's interference problem, which Sweet said he had not previously seen from Mesoraco). Seven of the nine regulars in the current Louisville lineup are right-handed, and so Sunday will be a challenge for the soft-throwing, pitch-to-contact Livingston. He does have the advantage of a late-afternoon start time, when shadows begin to creep over the field and abet the pitchers.
* The Bats' "starter," Jeremy Horst, enjoys precisely the same advantage, of course. I put "starter" in quotation marks because the left-handed Horst, who was born in Wyoming and grew up in North Dakota, was actually converted to a reliever this year after working exclusively as a starter in 2009. Horst had a wonderful 2010, mostly with Double-A Carolina, although right-handers—of which the Bulls, like the Bats, have seven in their regular lineup—hit him very well. Horst was called upon to make two starts late in the regular season for Louisville, not long after he was promoted from Carolina. In both, he went four innings and was generally effective (two runs total), throwing 50 pitches in the first outing and then jumping up to 71 in the second. Louisville manager Rick Sweet told me after the game that he doesn't expect Horst to pitch more than four innings on Sunday. "I'll just get as much as I can out of him," Sweet said. After that, it will be all hands on deck—and it wasn't for nothing that Sweet rested every one of the four relievers he used in Friday's tense, no-margin-for-error win. All four of those frontline bullpen arms—Phillippe-Alexandre Valiquette, Micah Owings, Daniel Ray Herrera and Jared Burton—may very well all see action in relief of the training-wheeled Horst today.
After the starters essentially decided Saturday's result, dealing at extreme opposite ends of the effectiveness spectrum, here's betting that the bullpens will settle Sunday's affair. It's quite likely that neither starter will last past the fifth inning, and that their early departures won't owe to poor performances. Horst is limited perforce—his arm just hasn't been prepared to pitch deep into a game—and Livingston will be on a shorter leash than, say Richard De Los Santos, whom Charlie Montoyo tried to ride into the sixth inning, disastrously, in the Bats' Game One win.
Some sense of the importance of good bullpens in the post-season arose during my last interview of the night. I asked Bats manager Rick Sweet whether Todd Frazier's two-out, ninth-inning homer off of Brian Shouse, followed by Michael Griffin's rope off the Blue Monster, had perhaps re-injected his team with a little momentum going into Sunday's rubber match. "No," Sweet replied. "I would say [it was] throwing out zeroes for the last four innings": Three Louisville relievers held the Bulls scoreless on two hits. "We stopped their momentum," Sweet explained.
He went on to add an a cliche, but one which is appropriate despite its threadbareness: "Tomorrow's just a new day." When it's the potential last game of the year for both teams; when the rain that dampened Saturday's contest and may fall again this morning will have cleared out by the afternoon, scouring the sky fresh and blue and clear; when you take all 147 games your team has played since April and essentially burn them up in your mind and forget they ever happened, while also blinding yourself to the enticing, distracting possibility of more games ahead and the trophy they promise—under all of those crystal-clear, black-and-white, straight-and-narrow, into-the-fire conditions, tomorrow's not just a new day. It's the only day.
See you at—write this down!—5:05 p.m. (not 7:05!) at the DBAP.