DBAP/ DURHAM— Durham starter Virgil Vasquez breezed through the first two innings of the Bulls’ 6-4 loss to the Charlotte Knights last night, apparently unaffected by an annoying 12-minute rain delay after the first inning. He was through the first two innings on just 22 pitches (15 strikes), striking out Luis Rodriguez and Tyler Flowers swinging. Having looked good in his last two starts as well, his first since returning from his two-month stint on the disabled list, it seemed like he was right back in the groove again.

But in the third inning, everything fell apart for him. Brent Morel—keep an eye on this skilled, hard-nosed young third baseman down the road—hit the first pitch Vasquez threw for a long home run. Fernando Cortez, a former Bull, belted a double to left, and after a sacrifice and groundout moved Cortez to third with two outs, Rodriguez hit the first pitch he saw for a two-run home run to right field. Then Josh Kroeger hit the first pitch of the fourth inning for another home run. After a walk and a fielder’s choice groundout, Morel hit the first pitch of his next at-bat deep to center field, where Desmond Jennings caught it nearly 400 feet away for a fortunate out. Two outs, but Vasquez fell behind Cortez 3-1 and Cortez singled to put runner on the corners. Rob Hudson followed by hitting—what else?—the first pitch of his at-bat for an RBI double to left. Kroeger added another first-pitch double in the fifth inning.

In other words, if you’re going to throw first-pitch fastballs, they must be either very, very fast or not right down the middle. Vasquez got that backwards last night, and it cost him his first loss of the season. By the time he departed, after issuing a leadoff walk to Flowers in the sixth (it was his second of the game; he had allowed three walks in 33 innings prior this year), the Bulls were down by five runs. On Thursday night, the Bulls were also down by five runs after five innings. As Charlie Montoyo put it in his game report, “lo mismo.” It would be great if lo mismo were the name of a tropical drink made with guava and a blender, but it’s Spanish for “the same,” as in “their starter pitched good [just like last night] and ours didn’t [ditto, the same, lo mismo].”

The Knights have won six in a row, including two straight at the DBAP, and have crept to within seven games of the Bulls in the South Division. No, that’s not really all that close; and no, the Knights aren’t going to win all the rest of their games (they’ll probably win a lot of them, though); but the Bulls, who looked loafish for the second straight night—until a ninth-inning charge made the game interesting too-little-too-late—are going to have to wake up in order to make the playoffs again. Charlotte’s no russe anymore.

So at first Virgil Vasquez succeeded, then he suddenly stopped succeeding. What happened? “I didn’t establish in,” Vasquez explained after the game, meaning he failed to take command of the inside part of the strike zone. It is essential, unless maybe you are Tom Glavine, to do this, especially if you don’t throw hard. Vasquez tops out at around 89 mph and relies on a mixture of cutters, sliders and curveballs in order to make his modest fastball effective. He is also a flyball pitcher, which can be dangerous if he isn’t moving the ball around and hitting his spots. (Last night: six outs in the air, four on the ground not counting a sacrifice bunt.)

“I didn’t establish in” can also be translated as poor location, simple as that—that’s how Montoyo assessed Vasquez’s night. You leave 89-mph fastballs out over the plate, they’ll get hit. “They know when to ambush the zone,” Vasquez said of the Knights. Apparently, when to ambush the zone was on the first pitch they saw. “I liked that they did that,” Vasquez said, explaining that he wants to induce contact and get outs off the bat rather than by strikeout, which isn’t his forte. “Sometimes they’re gonna do what they did today,” he conceded, sounding ready to get after it again on Wednesday. I hope he’s wearing a helmet when he rides back to his apartment on that blue bicycle for which he seems to have swapped out his moped.

Vasquez also mentioned that he had flown home to Santa Barbara during the All-Star break—a truly startling thing to hear, since it meant that he was home on the left coast for a grand total of about 48 hours, with a pair of cross-country flights eating up a huge chunk of the time off. “My ears still haven’t popped from the flight,” he said. He was quick to dismiss the travel’s effect on last night’s start, but Vasquez’s long-distance trip was a reminder (along with news of other players’ jaunts to Myrtle Beach, Austin, etc.) that the players are all still getting back into the groove.

That’s no excuse, of course: the Knights were all just on vacation, too, and they outscored the Bulls 12-3 for 17 1/2 innings on Thursday and Friday.

Seventeen and a half, but not 18. Sure, the Bulls hadn’t succeeded at first, or even later, but in the bottom of the ninth inning last night, the fifth Charlotte pitcher, Ryan Braun, walked Dan Johnson with one out—Johnson has walked five times in his last eight plate appearances. Joe Dillon hit—you guessed it—the first pitch of his at-bat for a booming two-run homer (his first long ball since May 7!) to make it 6-3. Chris Richard followed with a long double to deep center field (it ticked off the glove of Buck Coats out there), and then Josh Kroeger, the Knights’ first baseman (he was 4-5 last night with a pair of doubles to go with his 13th homer), threw away Dioner Navarro’s grounder trying to connect with Braun covering the first base bag. Richard charged home to make it 6-4.

But Braun rebounded, fooling Alvin Colina with good breaking balls to strike him out looking, then blowing a 94-mph heater past J. J. Furmaniak to end the game. The Bulls struck out 11 times altogether, but Charlie Montoyo wouldn’t take the bait to criticize his hitters’ approach. “I don’t want to put too much on two games,” he said, praising the Knights’ pitching the past two nights. Not only was Charlotte starter Jeff Marquez effective—like Vasquez not a hard thrower, but unlike him able to pitch to both sides of the plate and keep the ball down—his successors, save Braun, were even better.

One of those was Chris Sale, whom the Chicago White Sox took in the first round of the draft last month. (He is not related, by the way, to Josh Sale, whom the Tampa Bay Rays took in that same first round.) Sale is a tall, skinny lefty, 6-foot-6 and 175 pounds (or 6-foot-5, 170, depending on where you get your information), and he throws from a three-quarters and sometimes sidearm angle. He was a dominant starter at a tiny college in Florida, with some stats there (e.g., strikeout-to-walk ratio) that were comparable to Stephen Strasburg’s. Sale made four appearances in Class A before the Sox jumped him up to Triple-A, and he debuted for the Knights last night. Sale threw one relief inning, featuring a sinking fastball that touched 95 mph and an 80-mph changeup that had hitters way out in front. Although he walked Joe Dillon to start his inning of work, Sale recovered to get three straight outs, getting Chris Richard to ground out and then whiffing Navarro and Colina. His tall, lefty leanness and his whiplike three-quarters delivery may eventually have people murmuring about the great Randy Johnson, but Sale doesn’t have, so far, that sweeping breaking ball that Johnson used to such devastating effect. On the other hand, Sale is only 21 and will probably add on some pounds as well as pitches; look for him in the majors soon, where I would bet he winds up in a bullpen: that high-labor delivery of his, Johnson’s exemplary longevity notwithstanding, doesn’t look like a starter’s. Too many notes, too much flapping and flailing. (Here is a worrier’s scouting report on his stuff and his mechanics.) In any case, it was fun to see a top-notch, first-round prospect in action—another hard-throwing lefty, too, like Aroldis Chapman, whom we saw throwing 102-mph fastballs at the DBAP for Louisville not long ago.

An injury note, this one Charlotte’s: Reliever Clevelan Santeliz (that name is sic; I thought at first that his name was actually Cleveland Sanchez and that someone was playing a dirty joke on us) came on in place of Sale, threw one pitch, and then crumpled in great pain, crouching on the mound for several minutes before leaving the game with what was later rumored to be a shoulder injury. From the looks of it, it could be serious.

A brief muse on Desmond Jennings. He’s the Rays’ top prospect among position players, but I’ve scarcely written about him this year. Why is that—especially recently, when he has been surging? Well, after he went 0-4 last night, striking out once and failing to hit the ball hard, I was surprised to see that he has been on fire for over a month now—I had thought his run of success was shorter than that. On June 6, Jennings was hitting just .228, with a dismal .607 OPS. Since then, he is batting .352 with a nine-game hitting streak and a seven-game streak, has 15 multi-hit games in 29 starts, and has raised his batting average to .292 and his OPS to .782. For the season, he has 21 stolen bases and has been caught only twice, and he has drawn 27 walks against 41 strikeouts, a good ratio for a young hitter. So why has Jennings managed to seem unexciting to watch? For one thing, he has only one home run this year (he hit 11 in 2009, eight in Montgomery and three with the Bulls). I was surprised to see that he has 17 doubles and four triples; he seems to hit almost nothing but singles (it’s actually 2/3 singles). He has great speed but rarely seems to turn it all the way on—perhaps, like B. J. Upton, he doesn’t really need to, relying more on good jumps in the outfield and on the basepaths than on flat-out wheels. But last night, playing right field, when he loped rather than sprinted after a pop foul that he might have had a play on with full-out gallop, I found myself immediately wondering about his level of effort. It’s entirely possible that he’s just got that peculiar type of superstar ability that makes it only look like he isn’t really trying, when in fact he’s simply extraordinarily gifted and supremely athletic. I should pay more attention. I don’t know why I should have devoted much more bandwidth to many of the Bulls’ post-Saturn Return guys than to a young stud still on the way up to his prime, and I’ll try to right that wrong as the summer winds down.

Speaking of the summer winding down, which I was doing plenty of yesterday, a quick look back at the season so far, now that the Bulls find themselves at their first potentially troublesome point of 2010. Recall that this team charged out of the gate to a 14-4 record, quickly securing first place and then, after a .500 May, regrouping in June and methodically widening their division lead to what seemed an insurmountable number of games. That is to say that at first the Bulls succeeded, which set the tone for their season, and soon enough they’ll need to start doing it again to avoid real danger. Their next chance to get it together comes Saturday night in Charlotte Fort Mill, SC, and they’ll have to surmount a couple of other foreboding numbers: starter Heath Phillips’s league-leading home run allowance (17 in just 107 innings pitched), and the cozy power-alley dimensions of Knights Stadium, which are invitation for him to cough up more.

I’ll see you back at the DBAP on Monday night, when the Columbus Clippers roll into town; the Clippers happen to be the only team in the International League with a better record than Durham’s. Maybe being the underdog for a change will light the Bulls’ competitive spark, which has been missing in the two games since the midsummer break ended. One thing about Saturn: it asks a lot of you. The Bulls haven’t had to answer a heavy-tolling bell all year. Wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they were asked to do it now. That’s what makes champions.