by Adam Sobsey
"We're going to have to outhit that team," Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said, his face gray with gloom after the ugly loss. But honestly, his team scored eight runs—two of them on a seventh-inning pop-fly single by Chris Carter that found the Bermuda triangle in shallow left-center field—which should have been enough to win. Also, Louisville racked up 19 hits, 10 of those in their last three at-bats. Were the Bulls supposed to get 20? Anyway, the Bulls did outhit and outscore the Bats, by plenty, for seven innings. But they didn't put them away, didn't finish them off.
Ironically, Rick Sweet had conducted a postgame team meeting with his charges the previous night, after the Bats lost consecutive games at home to Buffalo (former Bull Dale Thayer got the save for the Bisons in the first of them). In that meeting he expressed concern about, as he put it, "the ability to put people away, finish people off." He was quick to tell me that he didn't yell at them, there was no negativity at all, but he needed them to apply nine full innings of concentration to their games, something he said hasn't quite been there this year.
Sweet made a point to distinguish between concentration, effort and results; it was really just the former that was lacking. "Part of it's youth," he said of a team that, while obviously more mature than the 2010 model—with a full year of Class AAA baseball under their belts now (I guess those would have to be timing belts)—is still rather wet behind the ears.
Some of the players, he added, have an eye on the big leagues, wondering when they'll get their (well-deserved) chance; and there are those who may have been put off or distracted by the rain: "worried about things that you don't have control over," Sweet said, instead of focusing on the game at hand.
Needless to say, Sweet was obviously quite gratified to see them do precisely what he was asking them to do. "In the eighth inning, when we scored the two runs" (on Daniel Dorn's home run off of Jake McGee), "I was pretty happy. I was thinking, alright, we had an hour-and-a-half rain delay, we were down 4-1, we've battled back [to 4-3 in the fourth inning]; yes, they scored a four-spot on us [to make it 8-3], but you know what? It wasn't because we did anything wrong. They just went out and got some base hits," one of them Carter's cheap two-run Texas-League dink, another Desmond Jennings's sacrifice bunt attempt that happened to net him a single. Sweet added that the victim of that four-spot, Bats' reliever Jerry Gil, had nearly gotten out of the inning with just one run scoring—he'd had Felipe Lopez at 3-2 with two outs but just missed with the payoff pitch. Russ Canzler then boomed an RBI double before Carter's single.
"So there were a lot of things that I was happy with, even though we were getting beat," Sweet continued. "And at that point, even if we had gotten beat, I would have said some good things." His team rewarded him by making good on the promise of Dorn's eighth-inning homer; and when Dorn added the game-tying single in the ninth—just beyond the reach of second baseman Lopez, whose range isn't great—the Louisville dugout erupted in cheers. They were easy to hear; in fact, they rang out in the DBAP, which, by then, somewhere around midnight, had only 44 fans left in it. We counted.
To Edgar Gonzalez's "hex-caster" and "half-Heisman," add what shall be dubbed the "ready sumo": After throwing a pitch he thinks is a strike, Gonzalez will sometimes strike a legs-apart, elbows-out warrior pose, as though trying to intimidate the pitch into being a strike. The Bulls' starter gave up a first-inning homer to Yonder Alonso, now sporting a 12-game hitting streak. Both Devin Mesoraco and Dorn dented the Blue Monster with impressive singles in the second after a hard lineout by Jeremy Hermida, and in the third Gonzalez speared a hard grounder back through the box by Juan Francisco to start an inning-ending double play. Then the rain delay came, and it was a surprise to see Gonzalez get loose again nearly two hours later: starters seldom return to action after that long in the clubhouse.
Charlie Montoyo said that Gonzalez had done that when he was in the major leagues, though, and that last night he'd continued to throw a little in the subterranean batting cage during the rain delay in order to keep his arm loose. All fine and good, except that after the Bulls scored a run when play resumed to take a 4-1 lead (they'd scored three times in the first inning off Louisville starter Tom Cochran), Gonzalez had trouble finding the strike zone. He struck out Todd Frazier (not all that hard to do; Frazier leads the Bats in that category), but then fell behind Hermida before Hermida nearly beheaded him with a line-drive single up the middle. Then Mesoraco hit a ground ball to the shortstop hole on which Ray Olmedo had no play; Dorn lined out hard to second base; Gonzalez walked Chris Valaika; then he fell behind Brent Clevlen, 3-1, before Clevlen singled to score two runs. Cory Wade came on in relief and tossed 2 1/3 solid innings, followed by another scoreless frame from Jake McGee. The game should have been over.
Readers who have been following the Bulls-Bats rivalry over the last year or so will have recognized a bunch of the Louisville player names I've mentioned. Alonso and Francisco are major league-ready hitters who are simply blocked in Cincinnati by veteran incumbents; Hermida is a former first-round draft pick and Florida Marlins mainstay who swings a dangerous lefty power bat; Dorn and Frazier are now formidable Triple-A players who might very well have big-league jobs in other organizations (like the Rays', for example); Mesoraco is a fast-rising catching prospect; and the Bats also have talented young shortstop Zack Cozart, who might be better than, for example, Tampa Bay's Elliot Johnson, the longtime Durham Bull (who has tallied his first two big-league home runs over the last few days!).
In other words, these guys can hit, and they spent last night not merely collecting 19 hits but hammering them. Dorn's homer was a no-doubter, as was Clevlen's game-winner in the 10th inning. And in the ninth, they showed mature patience and discipline at the plate against the Bulls' Mike Ekstrom, for the most part taking what he was giving them and stroking modest but productive singles rather than swinging for the fences: They needed baserunners, not long-balls, and their at-bats seemed pointedly committed to manufacturing just that.
Even earlier in the game, while the Bulls nursed a 4-3 lead for about three innings, it had the feel of a game Louisville was winning. The Bulls pitchers didn't record a single 1-2-3 inning all night. Once the Bats started to get rolling, it was as if they couldn't be stopped. They are now 23-16, half a game better than Durham, but make no mistake: they are the better team by a good distance. The Bats beat Durham in three out of four games up in Louisville in late April, outscoring them 24-13. They still trail front-running Columbus in the IL West division, but I'd take them head-to-head in a series—they have good pitching, too, including Matt Maloney, whom the Bulls face on Thursday.
That Durham-at-Louisville series, by the way, was the last one Durham played before enjoying 14 straight games against two of the league's three worst teams, Indianapolis and Syracuse. They went 10-4 in that bottom-feeding stretch, and to some degree their success simply owed to the poor quality of the opposition. Your bullpen can make some of those bad pitches and get away with them versus the Chiefs; not so against Louisville. Yesterday/today's loss began a stretch of 24 straight games the Bulls will play against teams that are .500 or better as of Wednesday; half of those are against the current leaders of their respective divisions, Columbus and Lehigh Valley. We'll know more about how good the Bulls really are by the time Norfolk comes back to town on June 11.
Two Durham relievers with question marks. Last night—actually, this morning—marked the second straight time I've seen Dane De La Rosa throw nice flat 93-mph fastballs up and over the plate for hitters to devour. He's a pretty intriguing out-of-nowhere story, coming to the Rays from the independent-league wild west and putting together a good 2010 season that persuaded the team to add him to their 40-man roster. Lately, though, he hasn't looked like a big-league pitcher. His curveball last night was often nowhere near the strike zone, and Louisville jumped on the fastball. I seem to recall hearing last year that De La Rosa could bring the heat in the upper 90s, but so far this season he's usually around 93. It seems to me that a lot of these guys who are said to throw 96+ mph don't actually do it; it's like a sales-tool with slightly less impressive actual goods. It should be said, too, that just because a pitcher can throw, say, 97 mph, doesn't mean he will all that often. The velocity reported is frequently the top of the range.
Which brings us to Jake McGee. McGee threw a 95-mph fastball last night, but he also threw other fastballs at the following speeds: 90, 91, 92, 93, 94. It isn't clear to me whether the variation is deliberate or if he's just not able to be consistent with it. He told me last year, as I've mentioned recently, that he featured a 95+ version and a 91-ish version, in an effort to keep hitters a little off balance. But this year there isn't that same delineation; the fastball is just kind of scattered up and down the radar gun, with little apparent purpose, and it doesn't fool hitters enough. It seems to me that, if you have only one really good pitch—in McGee's case, a 95-mph+ fastball with life on it—you should use it more. His slider is still just okay. If he throws a changeup, I haven't seen it.
Some quick notes:
* Dirk Hayhurst tweeted that he would be going down to the Rays' training complex in Port Charlotte (aka "Extended Spring Training") to throw 1-4 rehab games there. He wasn't in the clubhouse after the loss, so apparently he's already gone. I suppose that could mean as many as three Dirk-less weeks for the Bulls, if all goes well, but as always these things are impossible to predict. He could come back in five days, or not at all.
* J. P. Howell, who was denied the chance to pitch for the Bulls on Monday (they were rained out at Syracuse), went to Port Charlotte, too, as did Hayhurst, and pitched in a game for the Stone Crabs. He is expected to rejoin the Rays on Friday.
* Brandon Guyer was in the Bulls' lineup Tuesday night—he would have played Monday had the Syracuse games not been washed out—and so it seems safe to assume that his shoulder strain was nothing serious. Guyer had a pretty good game, going 2-3 with a pair of walks.
* To tack a final insult onto the injury of last night's game, Justin Ruggiano finished 0-6 with three strikeouts. The last of these ended the game. He was rung up by home plate umpire Craig Barron on a pitch that was almost certainly both high and outside. To his credit, Ruggiano, who could have looked at the clock, noted that it was nearly 12:30 a.m., and decided not to care for the sake of getting off to bed, instead complained pointedly to Barron. He was still competing. A good sign—Ruggiano was displaying the same sort of concentration Sweet was asking for from his team.
* The official scorer at the DBAP has had that job for nearly 25 years. (I will let that sink in for a moment ... ) He said after the game that last night's end time—12:22 a.m., if I recall—was the latest game ending time in the history of the DBAP. If you were one of the 44 fans who stayed, you witnessed history. Congrats, I think.
* The Bulls had played, coming into the game, four games at the DBAP this season that were delayed an hour or more by rain; and they had also played four extra-inning games at home. So they added one more of each. There have been some long evenings at the ballpark. The DBAP is the only venue in the league not to have had a rainout so far this season. It has been a very wet spring.
Just a few hours after the sky sprung a leak on the Bulls, Louisville will spring a Leake on them. Right-hander Mike Leake will face the Bulls' Alex Cobb at 12:05 p.m. (!), and if you can get away from whatever you're doing this morning, it would be worth checking out these two talented young pitchers who were born about a month apart in 1987. This is without a doubt the marquee matchup of the series. (We won't see Dontrelle Willis, apparently.)
Leake was the (very) rare ballplayer to go straight from amateur baseball to the major leagues. In 2009, the Reds took the Arizona State standout with their first-round draft pick, and he made the big-league club out of spring training in 2010. He started 22 games for Cincinnati that year and went 8-4 with a 4.23 ERA, although there are some wobbly peripheral stats from his rookie year that suggest he was somewhat lucky. Still, as a 22-year-old with no prior professional experience, his performance was more than promising. Nonetheless, reports were that he would have been optioned to Louisville early this season except that the Reds' pitching staff suffered some injuries, and Leake made nine appearances in the majors to begin 2011, six of them as a starter. He was sent down to Louisville just a few days ago, following the return of, among others, Johnny Cueto, whom the Bulls faced in Kentucky last month on a rehab assignment.
Rick Sweet declared that Leake would still be in the majors were he in 75 percent of the other baseball organizations, adding that "the Cincinnati Reds' strength is their starting pitching," keeping Leake from securing a major-league job for now. "He hasn't pitched that poorly" this year, according to Sweet. In fact, in some important ways, he's been better than he was in 2010; but his ERA is 5.70, and so the Reds have dispatched him to Louisville (well, to Durham initially) for seasoning and regular work.
Oddly, then, Wednesday afternoon marks Leake's minor-league debut after more than a full season as a major-leaguer. "We've kind of done this ass-backwards," Sweet joked.
Speaking of which, Leake, unfortunately, is best known not for anything he's done on the mound this year but for what he's done at the mall: On April 18, Leake was arrested for shoplifting at the downtown Cincinnati Macy's. The rather embarrassing incident—Leake reportedly ripped the price tags from half a dozen T-shirts worth about $60 and tried to walk out with them—led to plenty of media honking and then an implausible-sounding explanation from the pitcher himself. Nonetheless, when I brought up the arrest to Sweet (Leake pleaded guilty and had the sentence reduced to community service), he said: "I hadn't even thought about it until you just brought it up. He's a good kid. It's a bad incident, but it's over and done with."
Leake throws five different pitches, and it's quite probable that no Durham Bull has ever hit against him, except perhaps once or twice in a spring training game. That game time again is 12:05 p.m., which is really not very long from right now as I type this. I better get some sleep. See you in a few hours.