24th-man Omar Luna is batting .367 as a Bull
  • photo courtesy of Durham Bulls
  • 24th-man Omar Luna is batting .367 as a Bull

DBAP/ DURHAM—The Hall of Fame player Tony Gwynn, one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball, was in Durham last night on behalf of the US Air Force. So are you surprised to hear that the Bulls, in his honor, bombed the Syracuse Chiefs with a 10-run sortie in the first inning? Chiefs’ starter Jason Jones, poor fella, surrendered eight straight hits to start the game, got two outs, added a walk, a double and a hit batter (Dan Johnson, who had hit his 29th homer off of Jones earlier in the inning), and was finally relieved. A pitcher with the inapt name of Leatherman (he should be a utility infielder, of course) was greeted with an RBI single by Chris Richard before finally escaping an inning that lasted over half an hour and 60 pitches. The Bulls, who last scored 10 runs in an inning in 2007, coasted from there, winning 15-4.

Jones’s ERA jumped from an already bad 6.21 to an unthinkable 9.31; what’s more, he had allowed five runs in the first and only inning of his previous start at Norfolk, so Jones has now given up 15 runs in his last 1 2/3 innings of work. That works out to an ERA of 79.41. Dizzying stuff. To quote someone who knows a bit about hits, Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? By way of figuring it out, Jones (or his representative in the Chiefs’ clubhouse) called the Press Box to request a copy of the game film. Really, Jason, any old horror flick will do.

In Jones’s defense, only four of the hits he allowed were hit hard. Most were just dribblers and bleeders that found holes in the infield. More remarkably, he threw first-pitch strikes to every single batter he faced. (Leatherman did the same for the rest of the inning, a remarkable 15 first-pitch strikes in a row.) But when, later on in the home team’s clubhouse, Jones’s outrageous misfortune prompted me to admit that I felt kind of bad for him, three different Bulls shot me raised-eyebrow looks. “They don’t feel bad for us when we strike out,” one of them said. Dan Johnson, for his part, had no pity on Jones’s weak, hanging 2-1 curveball that he hit into the right-field seats to make it 4-0 before a single out had been recorded. It wasn’t a good pitch. “I didn’t think so,” Johnson said, a glint in his eye, smirking. It’s sports, kids. You don’t feel bad for losers. You beat them. (And for what it’s worth, I was reminded after the game that the Bulls faced Jones twice last year, and beat him once. All I can say is that last night probably would have been even worse for Jones had the Bulls still had Ray Sadler (scroll down a bit if you follow that link.)

With the win, the Bulls swept Syracuse, which looked resigned and aloof by the last game of the series. (Durham took seven of eight from the Chiefs in the regular season, outscoring them 56-19.) Durham went 6-2 for the homestand, improved to a season-high 22 games over .500, and left their mini-slump somewhere in a forgotten, ungrazed pasture. Charlotte lost again, and the Bulls now have an 11-game lead in the South Division with 40 to play.

Overshadowed by the Bulls’ outburst was a fine pitching performance by Virgil Vasquez, who rebounded from a pair of poor starts with a new wrinkle. More on that, and some notes, after the jump. Before we make it, though, congratulations to Tampa Bay Ray Matt Garza, who evened out all the hitting last night by throwing the franchise’s first ever no-hitter. What made it sweeter still, especially for Bulls’ fans, was that his mound opponent, the Detroit Tigers’ Max Scherzer, was tossing his own no-hitter for 5 2/3 innings. But he loaded the bases with a pair of walks and a catcher’s interference call, and Matt Joyce made the Rays’ first hit of the game a grand slam home run. Joyce, you may recall was traded to the Rays last year from… the Detroit Tigers. So all seems to be right, right now, in the Durham-Tampa corridor, where all involved are pleasantly tangled up in blue. And you can add the Rays’ Double-A affiliate to the skein: The Montgomery Biscuits had an eight-run second inning to fry the Carolina Mudcats last night.

What can you say, really, about a freakish inning in which a team opens with eight straight hits, sends 15 men to the plate, finds every hole in the infield but also hits two doubles and a homer, and scores 10 runs? Freakish as it is, nearly every player has seen it before. Charlie Montoyo told us after the game that he remembered it happening to former Bull Mitch Talbot in Montoyo’s first year as the team’s manager. On May 5, 2007 in Richmond (before the Braves moved to Gwinnett), Talbot allowed 10 runs without recording a single out. He gave up three doubles and a walk, and hit a batter, before Montoyo lifted him. Amazingly, that day’s lineup, more than four years ago, included three current Bulls: Elliot Johnson, Chris Richard and Justin Ruggiano. The latter two played last night and were a combined 4-4 in the first inning alone, with three runs scored and three RBI.

Which is to say: play enough baseball and you’ll not only see things as unlikely as a 10-run first inning, you’ll be on both sides of one. “You can’t control results,” Joe Dillon said afterward. He was talking about the slump he seems to have leaped out of after going 3-5 last night with a long homer in the seventh inning; but he could just as well have meant the game as a whole. Baseball, I am sometimes reminded, is vexatiously difficult to play. (“I think it’s the hardest game in sports,” Dillon said, adding the familiar but bedrock truth that baseball is, for hitters, “a game of failure.”) Every now and then, though, the odds say that it will all come easy. It did for the Bulls last night.

Not quite the same can be said for Virgil Vasquez. He pitched around a two-out double in the first inning, allowed a long homer to Seth Bynum in the second, and really struggled in the third. Vasquez suddenly couldn’t find the strike zone, walked two men, and gobbled up 32 pitches, although he did manage to keep Syracuse from scoring. He told us afterward that he was angry with himself for that lapse, attributing it not so much to a loss of focus, after sitting in the dugout for a long, long time during the Bulls’ first-inning siege, as to loss of adrenaline. But after he got the juice flowing again, Vasquez was superb, retiring 13 in a row before fading, perhaps, in the seventh, and allowing a single and a double before getting out of the inning.

It was more than mere adrenaline, however, that got Vasquez through the game. Last night, he introduced a new pitch to his repertoire, a two-seam fastball, which he’s been working on with pitching coach Xavier Hernandez. One night after watching Richard De Los Santos shut down Syracuse with that pitch, Vasquez used it to good effect, featuring it often. He got 10 ground-ball outs, the result of the two-seamer’s natural sinking and tailing action. Vasquez also throws a cut-fastball; with both of those pitches in his arsenal, he’s got options against lefties and righties; and he broke out a number of curveballs, too, to disrupt the Chiefs’ timing, along with a handful of well-chosen changeups. Vasquez threw first-pitch strikes to 22 of 27 batters, and although he fanned only two of them (and had just five swings-and-misses in his 107 pitches), his only walks were those two in the blurry third inning. He picked up his fifth win (against just one loss) and lowered his ERA back down to 4.44. Vasquez is going to be heavily relied upon as the season moves toward and through the playoffs, so it was nice to see him regain his command last night.

(A quick note about the two-seam fastball, which has been a popular topic lately. De Los Santos has excelled with it, and now Vasquez. Jeremy Hellickson has tinkered with it, too. Its bigger brother (or at least faster brother), the four-seamer, tends to ride up in the strike zone and flatten out as it flies. The two-seamer doesn’t generally reach the same velocity—most pitchers seem to lose a few miles per hour with it—but it has ornerier action. For pitchers who don’t throw in the mid- to upper nineties—that is, who can’t blow a four-seamer past hitters regularly—the two-seamer seems like an ideal weapon. With its downward-plunging finish, it naturally produces more ground balls. For a homer-prone pitcher like Vasquez, it ought to help a lot. I wonder if the two-seamer is a special pet pitch of Xavier Hernandez. I’ll try to ask him about it before the season ends.)

Meanwhile, the Bulls tacked on a second-inning run on a single by Dillon to score Omar Luna, whose improbable run continued with a 4-5 performance that included a pair of doubles. He’s batting an astonishing .367. After that, they went dormant until a pair of two-run home runs: Dillon’s in the seventh off of flat-lining Ron Villone and Fernando Perez’s in the eighth off of Chiefs’ right fielder Kevin Mench, who did an inning of position-player mop-up for manager Trent Jewett. (Jewett has had to go to a position player twice against the Bulls this season.) So after an in-late, out-early followed by an out-early, in-late, the Bulls were in-early and in-late last night (and out in the middle, going scoreless from the third through the seventh). Do that, and you’ll almost always win.

A few notes:

* The Bulls have outscored opponents in the first inning this year, 82-36. That’s the most runs they’ve scored in any inning in 2010, and the widest margin in any inning as well. The Bulls overall +171 run differential is best in the International League, and the second-place team in that category, Columbus, isn’t even close (just over 100). The team in the majors with best run differential is the New York Yankees, and they’re at +123; they’ve played four fewer games than the Bulls have.

* Aneury Rodriguez relieved Virgil Vasquez and allowed a three-run homer to Chiefs’ slugger Jason Botts in the eighth inning, after a double and a walk. (The Bunyanesque Botts, an Independent-League patch for Chris Duncan and Josh Whitesell, both out of action, hit two doubles and two homers in the four-game series.) It’s impossible to guess right now how much of a shakeup in the pitching staff we’ll see at the trading deadline (July 31), and then again when major-league rosters expand (September 1), but there’s reason to think that Rodriguez will be pressed into higher-stakes action as the season moves toward the playoffs. It would be great to see him work out the kinks in his approach and execution before that happens, if it happens. Demoted to the bullpen about a month ago, he hasn’t fared well, allowing nine runs in 11 innings over six appearances.

* The injury Alvin Colina sustained the other night turns out to be a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). He has gone to the Rays’ training complex in Port Charlotte, Fla., where he will have surgery. Although the ACL fix is a relatively simple one, and the recovery time reasonably quick, Colina will miss the rest of the season. He had an affable demeanor in the clubhouse all season, and we hope to see him in action, with Bulls or another team, in 2011. Sometimes, when you watch how unnatural most of what baseball requires really is on the human body, it’s hard to believe that players aren’t getting hurt all the time. Pitching, swinging, sliding, lunging: the game is full of actions that require abrupt, high-stress, ludicrously intricate movements of muscles, tendons, all the fibers and strings that hold us together and are designed for easy, unhurried, straight-ahead use: another reason why Joe Dillon is (to my thinking) right to say it’s the hardest sport to play. Hitting a jump shot is one thing; hitting a curveball, quite another.

* The Bulls fly off to Allentown, Penna. early this morning, for four games against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Heath Phillips, who has pitched well in two starts since the All Star break, faces the IPs’ Brandon Duckworth on Tuesday night. The 34-year-old Duckworth has had some substantial time in the majors, largely with Philadelphia. He is back in the Phillies organization, which signed him as an undrafted free agent him back in 1997, for the first time since they let him go in 2004. One thing operating in the Bulls’ favor tonight is that the IronPigs are fresh off an exhausting, 15-inning, four-hour loss to Norfolk last night, in which five Lehigh Valley relievers were taxed for two innings each. Another thing favoring the Bulls is that the IronPigs’ ballpark is (according to a couple of Bulls, anyway) a good place for left-handed hitters to hit home runs. One of those according-to Bulls was a lefty named by the name of Dan Johnson, who leads the league in homers and recently won the All-Star Home Run Derby in Lehigh Valley’s Coca-Cola Park a couple of weeks ago…

* See you back at the DBAP on August 5, when Indianapolis comes to town.