DBAP/ DURHAM—On Thursday night, the intense grip of heat and humidity that stifled the Triangle all week suddenly lifted. Around the time that Bulls reliever Rob Delaney walked in the winning run in a 2-1, 10-inning loss to Columbus, the air had begun a stark transformation. Instead of sultry night heat lowering down on us, a cool and light breeze was blowing. It was almost like April again. On Friday morning, I stepped out of the house around 9:00 a.m. and my first thought was that it was going to be a beautiful night at the ballpark. Crisp. Clean.
And it was—not only in the air but on the pitcher’s mound. Pawtucket starter Andrew Miller, the former University of North Carolina standout who won the Roger Clemens Award (which I suspect is no longer named for him) as the national college pitcher of the year in 2006, cooled the Bulls off, teaming with two relievers on a 6-3 victory that wasn’t really as close as the score might suggest. A first-inning error by Russ Canzler led to two unearned runs for the PawSox, and Bulls starter Jay Buente had a bad third inning to make it 5-0.
“We lost that game in the first three innings,” Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said afterward. Our postgame interview with him was unusually brief: there wasn’t all that much to say, really.
That was a change. The Bulls played a hot, sweaty, often intense series against league-leading Columbus. At no point did either team lead any of the four games by more than three runs, and two were decided by just one. Pawtucket’s arrival, timed precisely to that of the cooler, drier weather, was not just a lowering of the team’s temperature (the Bulls won three of four games against the Clippers) but a flattening of its energy. A pitching performance like Miller’s—much better than the official record will show—will do that to you.
Here is the essential statistic of last night’s ballgame. Andrew Miller did not walk a batter. The last time Andrew Miller started a game and did not walk a batter was on… June 11, 2009. He did it as a Florida Marlin against the St. Louis Cardinals. That was 50 starts ago. (I’m counting his outing just prior to last night’s, when he came in after rehabbing Bobby Jenks opened against Indianapolis with a single scheduled inning. Miller came on in the second and pitched seven innings of one-hit, shutout baseball.)
Let me repeat: Fifty starts ago! Fifty!
In 2 1/2 seasons before that walk-free start against St. Louis, Miller made 51 starts in the minors and majors. In those 51 starts, he had walked zero hitters in just six of them: twice as a Jupiter Hammerhead in August 2008; and four times with the Lakeland Flying Tigers, Erie SeaWolves and Toledo Mud Hens in 2007.
So, to break this down: Miller has walked zero batters in eight of over 100 career starts. One of them was last night against the Durham Bulls. He came in having walked 34 men in 47 1/3 innings in 2011. He threw 100 pitches, 69 for strikes. He faced 25 hitters, and threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of them. He struck out nine batters. He hit 97 mph on the DBAP radar gun. He went to only three three-ball counts. And there was the no-walks part.
Miller’s start was better than it looks on paper. He allowed three runs, all earned, and here is how. In the bottom of the third, with Durham already down 5-0, Robinson Chirinos hit a high fly ball to left field. Daniel Nava went back on it, saw the Blue Monster looming 30+ feet above him, and decided he wanted no part of it. Che Hsuan Lin drifted over from center field and leaped, but the ball hit off the wall a few feet over his leaping reach and bounded away. It would have been caught for an out, and not even a really deep one, in most ballparks. Instead, Chirinos legged out a triple.
On the play, backing up third base, Miller went sliding—rather gracefully for a guy who is 6-foot-7 but somehow seems even taller—into the PawSox dugout railing chasing after the ball, which got away from Sox third baseman Brent Dlugach. (Miller sported a little raspberry on his shin after the game.) The trainer came out to make sure Miller was alright, and Miller said he was. He proved it by throwing a 95-mph fastball for a strike on his very next pitch.
On the pitch after that, Leslie Anderson hit a grounder to shortstop. Chirinos broke for home, which you aren’t really supposed to do in that situation, and Pawtucket shortstop Jose Iglesias tried to throw him out. But his throw one-hopped catcher Luis Exposito, who fielded it cleanly but had to raise up his glove to do so. Chirinos, who runs well for a catcher, slid under Exposito’s tag. 5-1.
With Anderson on first, Omar Luna hit what ought to have been a double-play ball, again to Iglesias. But he and Tony Thomas didn’t quite turn it perfectly, and Luna beat out the relay. Desmond Jennings hit a little flare into shallow right field to advance Luna to second base. Ray Olmedo followed with another grounder to force Jennings—this one was too slow to turn a double play. Then Brandon Guyer fisted a 110-foot cue shot over first base that became a gift double and scored Luna. Miller struck out Dan Johnson looking—for the second straight inning, with the exact same slider on or just off the outside corner (Johnson disliked both calls)—to strand two runners in scoring position. In a just world with a standard-sized left-field and more perfect fielding, Miller might very well have had a 1-2-3 inning.
His next three frames were perfect—or would have been were it not for Russ Canzler, who hit two (opposite-field!) doubles. One of the doubles might have been caught by a better outfielder. By the end of the sixth inning, Miller had struck out nine Bulls. Leading off the seventh, Chirinos had yet another weak hit, ending a good eight-pitch at-bat (in which Miller was still throwing 94 mph) with a wimpy looper to shallow left field—it fell in for a single—on Miller’s 100th pitch of the night.
Miller was removed and replaced with reliever Hideki Okajima, a four-year mainstay of the Boston Red Sox bullpen with 254 appearances since 2007. (Perhaps losing his stuff, Okajima was recently demoted to Triple-A, and isn’t happy about it.) Okajima wild-pitched Chirinos to second. A pitch or two later. Leslie Anderson ripped a double to left-center field on a bad pitch up and out over the plate, and Chirinos scored to finish Miller’s line at three runs, probably none of which he deserved.
Last night’s start and Miller’s preceding seven-inning, one-hit domination of Indianapolis were the tall lefty’s best of the season, easily. Both he and his manager, Arnie Beyeler, told us that he’d changed his pregame routine. Miller said that he had found himself struggling to find his groove early in his starts this year. He was frustrated, and the last straw, he said, came two starts ago against Toledo. Miller put nine men on base in the first three innings of that game (he escaped with only two of them scoring), but only one more in his last two.
Miller wanted to find a way to feel sharp from the get-go, so he and his pitching coach, Rich Saveur, came up with the idea of changing his pregame. Before the Indianapolis start, Miller made his warmup pitches, then sat down—as though he was in the dugout between innings—and then got back up on the bullpen mound and pitched what he called a “simulated inning.” (You’ll forgive me—I wasn’t watching this and don’t know if he had a “dummy hitter,” i.e. a position-player teammate, stand at the bullpen plate.) “I got up to game speed and worked out some kinks, as opposed to just getting warm,” he said. He repeated the routine before last night’s game.
By the time he took the mound in the bottom of the first last night, then, Miller had already thrown the equivalent of at least a full inning. He was in rhythm, and it showed. He struck out four of the first five batters he faced before running into undeserved trouble in the third. “That inning was actually kind of fun to pitch,” Miller said. “I felt like I knew where the ball was going, and even though some things didn’t go my way I was competing and getting contact.”
Miller has an opt-out date in his contract coming up very soon, on June 15—i.e. he can become a free agent if the Red Sox don’t call him up to the majors by then. He’ll make only two starts before that. We asked him, naturally, what he planned to do, and naturally he deflected the question. (“Right now I’m just trying to pitch well. That stuff is for agents and office people to worry about.”)
He did say, though, that he’s happy with the Red Sox organization, as evidenced by the rather odd way his current contract was put together. The Red Sox traded for Miller in the off-season, then non-tendered his contract shortly afterward. That was because, as Miller described it, he had been on the Marlins’ 40-man roster and was out of options; thus he couldn’t be sent to the minor leagues without passing through waivers. Still, the Red Sox wanted to keep him and Miller wanted to stay.
“They showed me they wanted me by trading for me,” he said, and added that he had had done some homework, too. Although Miller “had heard Boston was a first-class organization, I had a resource. I was able to call [Daniel] Bard.” Bard, a big-league reliever with Boston, was Miller’s teammate at UNC, when they went to the College World Series and made it to the finals before losing to Oregon State. Miller was able to “get an honest answer from him. Boston seemed like a good fit.” He inked a new free-agent deal shortly after he was non-tendered.
The Marlins, and before that the Detroit Tigers, had put upon Miller to alter his delivery. That isn’t uncommon with tall pitchers, who often have tangled, long-limbed mechanics that can result in injury down the road. Miller told us that “it was all in my best interests,” but nonetheless it didn’t work for him. The Red Sox, he said, have allowed him to work out his mechanics on his own, and “it’s starting to feel more natural.”
With Daisuke Matsuzaka scheduled for a major, season-ending operation (Tommy John surgery, to be precise), if Miller can keep duplicating what he did against the Bulls, and before that against Indianapolis, he may not have to weigh the pros and cons of opting out of his contract. A couple more starts as good as these last two, and Miller may force a decision from Boston rather than have to make his own. (They called up 29-year-old reliever Tommy Hottovy yesterday, but that seems like a very temporary patch.) He looks like a different pitcher than the one who hadn’t gotten through a start without walking a batter since the Summer of Swine Flu.
The last time I saw Michael Bowden pitch was right around the last time (before last night) Andrew Miller didn’t walk anyone in a start. On June 19, 2009, Bowden started for Pawtucket at the DBAP with a record-setting crowd of over 11,000 on hand. The first four batters he faced did this: walk, single, walk—grand slam! (Justin Ruggiano hit it.) Bowden, at the time the No. 2 prospect in the Red Sox organization per Baseball America (he’s now in the second tier), was done after one inning. At the time, I wrote: “His bizarre, too-many-notes delivery has me skeptical.”
Well, he threw only one inning last night, too, but it was the ninth—Bowden has been refitted as a reliever (like the Bulls’ Jake McGee has), a role in which his still unusual delivery perhaps plays a bit better. Basically, he threw 91-93 fastballs and little (or perhaps nothing) else, but they had great zip and life on them. In his delivery, he separates his glove hand and throwing hand early. I suppose it’s not too unlike former Durham reliever Dale Thayer’s motion, though it differs in some significant ways—but Bowden has better stuff, and he keeps the ball down in the zone much better than Thayer did. The Bulls swung and missed at six of his 17 pitches. Bowden struck out the side, working around Leslie Anderson’s one-out groundball single up the middle, to earn his fifth save. His only problem seems to be that he’s bad against lefties.
It’s fun to witness this sort of long-time-no-see evolution among visiting players. Generally, except for the IL South Division regulars, we don’t see much of the rest of the league enough to be able to keep up with the fortunes of most of these intriguing prospects. Perhaps that’s more than any minor-league fanbase (and beat writer) can really handle, anyway; but a night like Friday—another big crowd at the DBAP for Bowden—when the visiting team convincingly outplays the locals, provides a good opportunity to mark the progress of some old adversaries whose paths cross ours again. And in the case of Andrew Miller, it’s like getting to see what has become of a local legend long after the legend has worn off. Now he’s not much more than just another Triple-A veteran, a one-series-a-year North Division visitor, here and gone, trying to work his way back to the majors via the way stations of the International League.
As for the 30-24 Bulls, the team you’re probably here to read about, they’ve been on an up-and-down ride over the last two weeks. They’ve had a five-game losing streak and a pair of three-game winning streaks, leaving them 6-7 over that stretch. Second-place Gwinnett has been struggling, so the Bulls have actually increased their division lead to four games despite their sub-.500 play. After scoring a whole lot of runs for about half of that baker’s dozen worth of games, they’ve cooled off—largely due to facing good starting pitching.
Predicting the fortunes of a Triple-A team is a fool’s errand, so here’s a look at some current issues as we move through the season’s middle third:
1) Apparently, Rays G.M. Andrew Friedman said on a radio talk show that Desmond Jennings will be called up to Tampa within the next few weeks. It’s probable that the only reason he isn’t already in the majors has to do with the front office’s desire to avoid accelerating Jennings’s major-league “service clock” and hastening his eligibility for arbitration. If indeed Jennings soon leaves, he will leave behind a big hole in the lineup—and especially in the already depleted outfield. With Justin Ruggiano in Tampa right now, the Bulls have only two really skilled outfielders, Jennings and Brandon Guyer. None of the outfielders in Class AA Montgomery is really making heads turn; the risingest Biscuits are an infielder (Daniel Mayora) and a catcher (Nevin Ashley, whose 2011 numbers so far suggest a major improvement with the bat). So unless Ruggiano, if he is swapped out for Jennings, not only clears waivers but accepts an assignment to Durham—kind of hard to believe, really, that that would come to pass—that hole isn’t likely to be well filled. Something to keep an eye on.
2) Russ Canzler is one of the top two or three hitters in the International League right now, adding two more (opposite-field!) doubles to his pile of hits last night. But he is also one of the league’s worst fielders, and helped cost Jay Buente and the Bulls two runs against Pawtucket when he mishandled a fairly easy grounder by Che Hsuan Lin to open the game. (In a way, it was almost a relief when Lars Anderson of the PawSox blasted a solo homer off of Buente in the fifth to extend the lead to three runs: it meant that the unearned runs that scored after Canzler’s error didn’t change the game’s outcome.) Canzler appears to be the real deal at the plate, but he has to improve with the glove if he’s to stick in the major leagues. Presumably he knows this; presumably he’s also working on it.
3) Cory Wade was awesome last night, carving up the PawSox with pitches as precise as Xacto blades. He struck out five of the seven men he faced, allowing only a weak single to center. I think of him as a breaking-ball specialist—he has a really good curveball—but I found myself noticing last night that he can throw a 91-mph fastball. That ain’t slow, kids. Wade, let’s remember, was a stalwart member of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ bullpen in 2008 (55 appearances, 2.27 ERA) before losing big chunks of 2009 and 2010 to shoulder problems. If he’s healthy again—his 1.09 ERA, strikeout-per-inning rate, and nearly 6:1 K/BB ratio would seem to indicate as much—he ought to be able to help the Rays in the majors at some point. Wade is entering the prime of his career: he turned 28 last week.
4) Jay Buente, after a good inaugural start as a Bull against Toledo last Sunday, had a rough night—he just couldn’t locate anything—but if going forward he’s close to what he was in the Marlins organization before he came to the Rays last week, I bet he’ll hold down his slot in the starting rotation well enough. Chris Bootcheck’s last outing was a fairly convincing one; Edgar Gonzalez seems like a dependable veteran innings-eater; Alex Torres has steep upside and looked good in his last start; Brian Baker, who has struggled at times, turned in a very encouraging performance against the potent Columbus Clippers earlier this week. (Baker, by the way, has been placed on the Temporarily Inactive List to attend to a “family matter.” He was in the clubhouse last night and is expected to make his next start.) If Dirk Hayhurst, off the disabled list and starting for Durham tonight, shows no ill effects from his elbow injury/stiffness, this rotation should be able to survive Alex Cobb’s recent promotion to the majors. Should Cobb return to Durham if and when Jeff Niemann finishes the rehab assignment he began last night with Port Charlotte (he threw four scoreless, one-hit innings), the Bulls’ five will get more fab. Meanwhile, flamethrowing lefty Matt Moore has found his groove with Class AA Montgomery and could be knocking on the Durham door before long.
But first Hayhurst. Game time at the DBAP is 7:05 p.m. The Garfoose’s opponent for Pawtucket will be Venezuelan lefty Felix Doubront, whose strong work this year so far makes him competition for Andrew Miller in the Replace-Dice-K crapshoot. Should be hotter at game time than it was on Friday. Maybe the Bulls will be, too.