Governors' Cup Championship Series Preview, Durham Bulls vs. Columbus Clippers | Sports

Governors' Cup Championship Series Preview, Durham Bulls vs. Columbus Clippers

by

comment

bat1.gif
Hi again!

The games:

Game 1: Durham @ Columbus, Sept. 14, 6:35 p.m. ET: Richard De Los Santos (R) at David Huff (L).

Game 2: Durham @ Columbus, Sept. 15, 6:35 p.m. ET: Aneury Rodriguez (R) at Zach McAllister (R).

Game 3: Columbus @ Durham, Sept. 16, 7:05 p.m. ET: Alex Cobb (R) at Yohan Pino (R).

Game 4: Columbus @ Durham (if necessary), Sept. 17, 7:05 p.m. ET: Paolo Espino (R) at Paul Phillips (R).

Game 5: Columbus @ Durham (if necessary), Sept. 18, 7:05 p.m. ET: Corey Kluber (R) at Bobby Livingston (L).

(n.b. The Clippers' rotation given above is based solely on an extrapolation from their playoff rotation in round one versus Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Also note the early start times in Columbus. The Bulls' playoff games in Louisville started early, too. I guess Midwesterners go to bed early.)

In mid-July, the Columbus Clippers came to the DBAP for their annual four-game regular-season road series at Durham. Playing a hunch—and, to be honest, the odds—I kept one of the Clippers' media department's Game Information and roster packets from that series: I figured Durham stood a good chance of seeing Columbus again in the post-season. Well, here we are, and the sheaf provides a useful means of measuring the team's changes since.

At the time of Columbus's July voyage to Durham, the Clippers had the best record in the International League, while the Bulls were in a post-All-Star-break slump, going 2-5 in the week that followed the hiatus. Durham did, however, manage a split of the four-game series by winning the final game. That launched the Bulls on an 11-game winning streak that put the regular season more or less to bed: The streak extended their South Division lead to 15 games, burying competitors in a deep, deep hole and allowing the Bulls to coast to Labor Day if they so desired. (They didn't, rattling off another nine wins in a row in mid-August and threatening the all-time franchise record for regular-season wins. They ended up one shy of the high-water mark of 89, set in 1962.)

The Clippers, meanwhile, luffed. After beating Durham in the first game of the series at the DBAP, they improved their record to a season-high 58-38. From there to the end of the regular season, thanks partially to the July promotion to the majors of some productive players, they went just 19-27 the rest of the way, and wound up squandering what had been a comfortable West Division lead. The Clippers' fade, along with the Louisville Bats' remarkable turnaround, ended with the Bats overtaking Columbus and winning their division by half a game, leaving the Clippers with the consolatory wild card.

But they didn't pout, taking down North Division champion Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in four games in the first round of the playoffs to set up a Governors' Cup Championship Series final with the defending champs, Durham.

And that brings us to Tuesday, September 14, 2010. Details, and lots of 'em—the things I do for you people!—after the jump.

For some reason that I can't quite articulate, I have a suspicion that starting pitching is going to play a bigger role in this series than it did in the Bulls' five-game, bullpen-borne triumph over Louisville. In those five games, there was only one really excellent starting pitching performance. It was by the Bulls' Alex Cobb—in his Triple-A debut, by the way—and it came in a game he lost, 2-1, victimized by by one bad pitch and a quiet night from the Bulls' lineup. There were some other good outings, like Chad Reineke's seven innings in Game One and some serviceable five-inning performances by the Bats' Matt Klinker and the Bulls' Bobby Livingston and Paul Phillips; but only Cobb turned in a start that left you really impressed—one of those crisp, dominating, playoff-charged masterings of another team's lineup. And on the other side, there were a pair of starts bad enough to lose games: the Bulls' Richard De Los Santos in game One, and the Bats' Ben Jukich in Game Four.

Columbus, on the other hand, got good starts in three of their four games against the Yankees, including seven innings of one-hit ball from Yohan Pino in Game Three. Even though there are no blue-chip prospects on the Columbus staff—at this time of the year, all the blue-chip prospects everywhere have been called up to the majors—they set the tone for their series win with strong starting pitching.

The Bulls, contrariwise, did it with their bullpen, but both teams held their first-round playoff opponents to a sub-.200 batting average. And to return to the thesis, I'm betting that we'll be seeing more games in the finals whose outcome is more heavily determined by who starts them. That is partly because the Columbus bullpen doesn't seem to have many shutdown arms in it, and partly because of Durham's De Los Santos and Cobb.

I'll look at the matchups below, but first let's check out who has left the two teams since they last met.

Durham

I'm assuming that you already know, if you're reading this, what the losses of Jeremy Hellickson, Desmond Jennings, Dan Johnson and Dioner Navarro have meant for the Bulls. Hellickson and Johnson were promoted a ways back, and Jennings and Navarro left on August 31.

The news today is that Jake McGee, the hard-throwing left-handed reliever, has been added to the Tampa roster and will not pitch for Durham again. This hurts the Bulls, of course, but McGee had a dominant month-long assignment in Durham, allowing just a single run in 17 1/3 innings, with a gaudy 27 strikeouts and just three walks. With the Rays' bullpen struggling a bit, they could use McGee's arm out of the bullpen. The callup makes sense.

In his place, you will probably not be able to miss spotting the 6-foot-6 right-hander Dane De La Rosa, whom I had wondered about a few weeks ago. In Montgomery, he posted very strong numbers out of the bullpen, averaging about a strikeout per inning and showing good control. His ERA with the Biscuits was 1.97. He is rumored to throw in the upper 90s, and that velocity can seem even more intimidating when commanded by a 6-foot-6 frame: The ball seems to be coming down on you from above when you're in the batter's box.

De La Rosa has been in a Bulls uniform—with his name on it—since the playoffs began. I didn't get a chance to talk with him during the Louisville series, wrapped up as I was in the playoff drama, but he seems to have an interesting story to tell. Originally drafted in the 34th round of the 2001 draft by the Texas Rangers, the 27-year-old chose to attend community college for a year instead, probably hoping to improve his draft standing. It worked: He was selected in the 24th round of the 2002 draft by the New York Yankees in 2002. His stats in Class A were promising, but the Yankees released De La Rosa after the 2004 season. He pitched for the Yuma Scorpions in the independent Golden Baseball League in 2005, was apparently out of baseball in 2006, and then signed on in 2007 with another Golden League team, Long Beach (De La Rosa is from Torrance, Calif., not far from there). He was signed by the Brewers late that season, pitched in exactly one game for their rookie-league team in Helena, Mont., and then spent 2008 and 2009 bouncing around the Independent Leagues, from Southern Maryland to El Paso, Tex., to Victoria, B.C., Canada. The Rays signed him in March, 2010, assigned him to the Class A Charlotte (Fla.) Stone Crabs—his previous team was called the Blue Crabs, so I guess that made sense—and bumped him up to Double-A Montgomery after just two appearances. (I wonder now if that was a domino effect of Aneury Rodriguez's promotion from the Biscuits to the Bulls.)

And that brings us more or less up to date on the long, strange trip—so far—of Dane De La Rosa. It was far too much typing to devote to a middle reliever, but let's face it: Wild cards, mysteries, outliers and the like have a certain fascination, especially nomadic Westerners whose sister's best friend is on record as crushing on. I hope he pitches at the DBAP this week.

(UPDATE: Here's why it was too much typing: I just discovered that the Rays, rather than activate Dane De La Rosa to take Jake McGee's place, instead optioned Mike Ekstrom back to Durham from Tampa—he had just been recalled to the majors a few days ago. My understanding is that players have three days to report for work when sent down to the minors, but I don't know why the Rays would send Ekstrom down to help the Bulls unless they thought he'd be likely to join them sooner than that. Well, so, tidak apa apa, as they say in Indonesia.)

A quick note about the relatively recent losses of Jennings and Navarro. J. J. Furmaniak, installed in the leadoff spot that Jennings occupied for most of the season, had a tremendous first round against Louisville, getting on base in more than half of his plate appearances. It's unreasonable to expect any hitter to stay that hot, but if Furmaniak can continue on against Columbus by putting up even his regular-season numbers—he had a higher on-base percentage than Jennings, and is an excellent second baseman—the Bulls won't miss Jennings's production too much.

As for Navarro, his bat is missed. Nevin Ashley and Craig Albernaz, both up from Montgomery, pose little threat to opposing pitchers. As backstops, though, both have noticeable strengths. Ashley has a good arm and a reputation as a tough guy to steal on—Louisville did not attempt a single stolen base, not one, in the five-game series. Moreover, the two As caught Alex Cobb and Paul Phillips all season long in Montgomery, which can only help those two pitchers. Cobb remarked on how normal everything felt for him in his first start at the DBAP: He allowed that he was nervous, but seeing his Biscuits battery mate behind the plate was reassuring. That had to have contributed to Cobb's excellent debut as a Bull.

Columbus

Promoted: Outfielders Michael Brantley and Jordan Brown; catcher Lou Marson; infielder Luis Valbuena; pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Justin Germano, Jeanmar Gomez and Josh Tomlin.

Disabled List: Outfielder Nick Weglarz; pitcher Jeremy Sowers.

Analysis: The Cleveland Indians, Columbus' parent club, didn't call up many players from Triple-A when rosters expanded on September 1. That's because the lowly Indians had long ago summoned to the majors pretty much all the players who could help them, and the remaining pickings were slim. Brantley was already gone in July when the Clippers came to town, returned briefly, then was recalled in early August. All of the others were called up in late July or early August.

Probably the biggest loss was that of Josh Tomlin, a mid-season All-Star who pitched very well against the Bulls twice this season, holding them to two runs in 12 total innings. Carrasco, too, was a strong starter, although he had to leave his start against the Bulls in Durham early with muscle cramps.

Those two starters' replacements are, basically, Zach McAllister and Paolo Espino. You may remember McAllister as a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankee. The Bulls faced him twice this season, and lost to him both times. But that isn't the whole story: the 22-year-old McAllister, who came into the season as a top-ten prospect in the Yankees' farm system, has had a very poor season, and the Yankees dealt him to Cleveland as the player-to-be-named-later in the trade that netted New York Austin Kearns. He has been even worse in three starts for Columbus. Once billed as a sinkerballer, his groundball/flyball ratio is poor, he has allowed a whopping 185 hits (including 21 home runs) in 149 1/3 innings, and has generally been a huge disappointment.

Espino, a 23-year-old Panamanian, was called up from Double-A Akron in early August. He has not fared well as a Clipper, allowing seven homers in 41 2/3 innings. He's apparently a finesse pitcher, not a hard thrower.

Note, though, that Espino pitched well against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, and that this is the time of year when young players often start putting it together and improving, rather than fading with late-season fatigue, as you might guess. (Recall how well Bulls catcher John Jaso played in the 2009 season's final two weeks after struggling all year; he's now in the majors, leading Tampa's lineup in on-base average.) There's no telling what the Bulls will see.

Nick Weglarz apparently sprained a thumb ligament in early August, diving for a ball in the outfield. He hit three home runs in the four-game series at the DBAP, so the Durham pitching staff must be hoping that Weglarz's thumb is still bothering him and that he won't be activated.

Pitcher Jeremy Sowers, a lefty, took a beating in his last relief appearance against the Bulls, giving up something like 41 straight hits. Probably just as well that he stays hurt.

Things to watch from Columbus:

SPEED! As I mentioned, the Louisville Bats, who aren't very fast, attempted no (zero, none, goose-egg) stolen bases in five games against the Bulls. But as pitcher Richard De Los Santos put it after he beat the Clippers in July, "Those little guys like to run." He was referring mainly to outfielders Ezequiel Carrera (5-foot-10, 185 pounds) and Jose Constanza (5-foot-9, 150), who are base-stealing threats every time they reach base, which in Constanza's case is often: His .319 batting average was tied for second in the league (with Freddie Freeman and the Bulls' Elliot Johnson), and he was 10th in on-base percentage. Surely, Nevin Ashley's reputation notwithstanding, Carrera and Constanza will try to take extra bases. How he (and Albernaz) handle that, and how well Durham's pitchers hold runners on first base—Richard De Los Santos's league-leading pickoff mark will help him—may make a difference in the series.

POWER! Few of the Clippers' current hitters are well-known to me, but looking over their statistics reveals that they can hit. Jared Goedert hit 20 homers this year, Wes Hodges 15. Second baseman Josh Rodriguez, a former second-round draft pick out of college baseball fount Rice University, added 12 dingers in just 86 games after his midseason callup from Akron. Rodriguez's second-round draft-mate in 2006, supplemental pick Matt McBride, had 21 homers between Double-A and Triple-A. (Hodges, a Georgia Tech graduate, is yet another 2006 second-rounder. When will some of these guys reach the big leagues?) And where the Louisville Bats, who led the league in homers, were a free-swinging bunch, the Clippers were third in the league in walks drawn—right behind the Durham Bulls, but with 150 fewer strikeouts; in fact, the Clippers struck less than any other team in the International League. And they led the league in batting average and on-base percentage. This is a disciplined, intelligent bunch of hitters, many of them boasting the training of highly-regarded college baseball programs. They even have a Stanford kid, Cord Phelps—take that, Fernando Perez, Columbia Lion!

MATURITY! One of the reasons for the Clippers' plate discipline is surely their experience. Although they aren't anywhere near as old as the Bulls—none of their position players is 30 years old (three of the Bulls' are)—they do have plenty of guys in their late 20s with ample experience. Carlin is 29, and his backup catcher, Damaso Espino, is 27—so are Jared Head, Jose Constanza and Drew Sutton, whom we last saw as a member of the Louisville Bats. Sutton and Hodges (who turns 26 today!) have both just completed their second full season in Triple-A, and Sutton has spent time in the majors, too. The pitchers are younger; save for reliever Saul Rivera, who is 32, not a single one is as old as 27, and the starting rotation has an average age of 24. The Bulls hitters need to exploit that inexperience, and with their strong plate discipline, they are suited to the task. The pitchers will have to throw quality strikes; Columbus, unlike Louisville, doesn't look to be a club that will chase a lot pitches out of the strike zone.

Things to watch from the Bulls:

Hitting: J. J. Furmaniak had a superb series against Louisville, and Leslie Anderson also hit well. Other than those two, though, the rest of the lineup was rather cool at the plate. (Even in their 8-1 rout in Game Four, the Bulls only had nine hits; they totaled double-digit hits in just one of the five games.) At least one other player will have to get hot, and it would be great if that player was Elliot Johnson, who bast second in the order and is a switch-hitter. With his combination of gap power and canny spray hitting—plus the occasional homer—he is the kind of hitter who can really torment opposing pitchers—and managers trying to make situational pitching changes. Justin Ruggiano, too, has game-changing potential. You'd have to think, too, that the Albernaz/Ashley combo behind the plate will need to do at least a little damage hitting in the eighth spot in the order. The Bulls hit just three homers against the Bats. Columbus has a hitter-friendly park—as does Durham, in some key ways—and the Bulls need to take advantage. The Clippers are going to score some runs.

Bullpen: Dan Johnson, runs scored, walks drawn, blah blah blah: The bullpen has been the Bulls' biggest asset, for my money, all season long. (It's better than the Clippers', which appears to be merely serviceable.) This is a team whose starters don't go deep into games—and then get injured. The bullpen carries them through. If the relievers pitch like they did against Louisville, they will likely keep Durham in every game. Charlie Montoyo isn't shy about going to them early in ballgames; don't expect that to change too much, even without Jake McGee. Dale Thayer, a mainstay of the Durham bullpen for more than two years, is likely to see some higher-leverage innings. How he handles them may make a major difference. And lefty swingman Darin Downs will be an essential go-to guy in case a starter blows a gasket early in a game.

Desire: Here's something to get you angry: Who gives a rat's a** about winning the Triple-A championship? That's sort of like climbing the steepest mountain in the United States—east of the Mississippi. The real competition, the real prize, the real place to stake your accomplishments, is somewhere else, at a much higher altitude, in much thinner air, where voracious beasts roam and snow falls in summer (or something like that). You could hardly fault the players for simply yawning their way through this whole post-season—especially because a bunch of the Bulls already won Durham a Governors' Cup in 2009; the luster has worn off. They don't get a bonus for winning it all, not a nickel; they miss their wives, kids, homes, health, freedom; the crowds at playoff time are dispiritingly small. (Only 2,200 showed up at the DBAP for Game Five against Louisville. Lame.)

The amazing thing, so far, is how much fun the Bulls seem to be having nowadays, and how genuinely and youthfully they celebrated winning the Louisville series. Can these well-aged, tired and tender steers maintain their excitement, their enthusiasm, their strength for one more week? So far, despite every reason to quit (or at least to loaf), that competitive instinct that lives deep in the psyches, even the muscles of athletes, has kicked in as reliably as hunger. One thing they will need to add, I bet, in this final, championship series: not just fun, but also ferocity—determined, even stubborn, will. Columbus is going to make the Bulls work harder, more seriously, more intensely. If this batch of surprisingly lively, upbeat Bulls—surprising because older—can summon and maintain that intensity, they'll have what they need to win. Well, that and some more hits.

It all makes me think of what the great Roy Campanella said of baseball: "It's a man's game, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you to play it."

***

A quick look at the pitching matchups before I sign off:

Game 1: Durham @ Columbus, Sept. 14, 6:35 p.m. ET: Richard De Los Santos (R) at David Huff (L).
De Los Santos insists his arm feels fine, even though he hasn't been sharp for three straight starts and is well over his career high for innings pitched in a season. His strike-throwing tendencies suit him to face Columbus—he handled them well in July—if his arm allows him to perform at his best. Montoyo, who likes to trust his proven commodities, left De Los Santos in Game One against Louisville too long, and De Los Santos gave up a game-deciding three-run homer in the sixth inning. By now, Montoyo should know that his ace's arm may be tiring, and shouldn't wait to lift him if there is sustained trouble. Huff is the only left-hander in the Clippers' rotation. The UCLA product has been dreadful in the majors, better in the minors—but has a high WHIP. If he puts some guys on base for Durham, they will have to convert, something they have struggled to do this year.

Game 2: Durham @ Columbus, Sept. 15, 6:35 p.m. ET: Aneury Rodriguez (R) at Zach McAllister (R).
Who knows which Aneury Rodriguez we'll see? He is Durham's least consistent starter, and has had consecutive poor outings (well, the one against Gwinnett was really just a bad inning). He is unlikely to last six innings. His walk rate in uncomfortably high; he'll have to be around the plate against Columbus. McAllister had a bad season but pitched well against the Bulls in two starts. You'd like to think that the Bulls' veteran intelligence will have helped them solve the tall right-hander. This is a matchup of young pitchers; the one that has the better fortitude probably wins it—if he lasts five innings, of course. Rodriguez didn't make it out of the third at Louisville.

(A note about the 6:35 start time in Columbus: Will shadows be an issue?)

Game 3: Columbus @ Durham, Sept. 16, 7:05 p.m. ET: Alex Cobb (R) at Yohan Pino (R).
Cobb looked wonderful in his start at the DBAP, and he seems to have the poise to do well again, but the quality of the opposition will be finer now. Cobb hasn't seen these hitters, as he had against Louisville (half the lineup was guys he'd faced in Double-A earlier this year; Akron isn't in the Southern League with Montgomery, though). He did, however, seem genuinely excited about getting an opportunity to pitch again for Durham this season. Pino had a poor year. The Bulls faced him twice, battering him for eight runs in Columbus but losing to him in Durham in July. Justin Ruggiano and Chris Richard both have homers off of him this season. He can be a hothead on the mound—he got into a little jawing with Angel Chavez in the July game—so perhaps the Bulls can rattle him a bit. He allowed 175 hits (and 25 home runs) this season; that was third-most in the league. The most allowed? Zach McAllister. All that said, Pino threw a gem at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the first round of the playoffs. He gave up a leadoff single and a walk to start the game, then retired the next 21 men he faced. If that's the Pino the Bulls see, look out.

Game 4: Columbus @ Durham (if necessary), Sept. 17, 7:05 p.m. ET: Paolo Espino (R) at Paul Phillips (R).
Might be the hardest one to call. Phillips seems like an automatic five innings, less than three runs, but how many more playoff games can he be expected to provide those numbers in? Is he ever going to have a bad game? Can he really keep getting guys out for five innings with only two pitches? (Kids, I'm not sure I would bet against the man.) Espino allowed a whole lot of homers upon his callup to Triple-A, as I mentioned above—seven in just 41 innings—and that's why he posted a 5.62 ERA. But he, too, pitched well against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, if the box score is any indication.

Game 5: Columbus @ Durham (if necessary), Sept. 18, 7:05 p.m. ET: Corey Kluber (R) at Bobby Livingston (L).
Livingston is a classic soft-tosser: wily, maddening, competitive. He'll have to have command in order to win; otherwise, his mid-80s fastball will get murdered—but somehow, it rarely does. On the opposite end of the speed spectrum, Kluber is a hard-throwing, big and tall right-hander acquired recently by the Indians from San Diego in the deal that sent Jake Westbrook to St. Louis and Ryan Ludwick to the Padres. His numbers in Double-A were arresting—136 strikeouts in 122 2/3 innings, good control, only seven homers allowed—but at least one report calls him a Jekyll-and-Hyde pitcher.

You want to know something, though? I have a feeling this series isn't going to go five games, and we'll never see Kluber or presume upon Mr. Livingston. Why? I have no idea. I'd be happy to be wrong: more baseball that way. But I'm not feeling a five-gamer this time. And who is going to win in less than five games? You got me there, kids. Tell you one thing for sure, though: Finding out is gonna be fun. Tell you another: I'll see you at the DBAP on Thursday at 7:05 p.m. More baseball. I can hardly wait!

Add a comment