There was so much to report on the game-inside-the-game after Monday’s home win by the Bulls over Norfolk that I completely neglected a key part of the big picture. Although I noted that Elliot Johnson replaced Henry Mateo at the top of the order, I failed to recount what Johnson did there: he went 3-4 with a homer, a double and a walk, and was basically the player of the game for the Bulls.
(I must digress here briefly for an I Am Psychic moment. On Monday night, I totally called Johnson’s homer off of Norfolk’s David Pauley. His first inning single was sharply struck, and Pauley then left a number of pitches up in the zone during his first time through the Bulls’ lineup. Johnson is good at getting his hands up on top of high fastballs, and I had a feeling he’d come up next time looking for one from Pauley. Before his third-inning at-bat, I said, “Johnson’s gonna hit a home run here.” One pitch later, pow: Pauley threw the high fastball and Johnson clubbed it over the right field wall. Alas, no one had heard my prediction, but Dave Levine, seated to my left, can back me up, because I was so worked up about it that I practically bashed a hole in the press box desk. Kids, I am psychic. Believe me.)
After Johnson shined in Monday’s game, I asked Charlie Montoyo about the decision to promote Johnson to the leadoff slot. Montoyo responded that it had more to do with giving Mateo a chance to break out of his prolonged slump than it did with rewarding Johnson, who in the week or so prior to Monday’s game had gone a decent but not awesome 10-33 with two homers and two doubles, but only four walks and an uncomfortable 12 strikeouts. Still, he was a better candidate to lead off than Mateo, who hasn’t looked consistently good in over a month. And after Johnson’s stellar Monday, Montoyo gave us a wry look and said, laughing, “Maybe Johnson’s leading off now.”
Turns out he wasn’t kidding. Johnson was in the pole position again against Scranton on Tuesday night, and played left field. (With Justin Ruggiano out on personal leave while he and his wife have their first child, Johnson may see another game or two there.) The switch-hitting utility player responded by hitting like a corner outfielder, belting two home runs, one from each side of the plate. The second, off of rehabbing Yankees reliever Damaso Marte, gave the Bulls a 3-2 lead in the eighth inning. Johnson is in full Eedge mode.
One out later, Matt Joyce followed Johnson’s home run with another one, a long screamer that gave the Bulls insurance. They won, 4-2. Both Gwinnett and Norfolk lost, so the Bulls are up two games and three and a half, respectively. They have the second-best record in the International League, just half a game behind Louisville. Don’t look now, but they’ve won three straight and five of six.
A few notes follow:
It should perhaps be said that Johnson, who went 3-4, also got himself thrown out on what appears to have been the Bulls’ nightly SBG: from what I can piece together of the game recap, in the sixth inning he tried to advance from first to second on a flyout by Reid Brignac. It’s hard to advance to second base on any flyout, because of course second is a relatively short throw from anywhere in the outfield. Not having seen or heard the game, there may have been mitigating circumstances, and I can’t be sure that Johnson’s attempt wasn’t shrewd. One thing is sure, though: Matt Joyce followed with a double to right, Ray Sadler walked, and Chris Richard flied to right. It seems safe to assume that Johnson would have probably scored in the inning had he not gotten himself thrown out, and thus his tie-breaking homer two innings later would have been unnecessary. Well, pace, captious sportswriters of the Internet: Heroics are heroics no matter how you manufacture them; as Edward Albee so eloquently put it, “sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance correctly.” There, I’m a book theater critic.
All in all, it was a satisfying win for a team that had to take an overnight bus (and wind up in Scranton!), and then play without its starting center fielder. The Bulls played without their closer, too. Dale Thayer was sent back down after his short stint in Tampa (he was filling a gap created by injuries), but he apparently wasn’t with the Bulls in Scranton. If I’m not mistaken, players have a day or two to report to the minors after being demoted, and Thayer may have decided to take a personal day before rejoining the team.
And if so, what does Jason Childers care? All he did in Thayer’s stead was record his fourth save in five days, once again with mercenary efficiency. He needed just 10 pitches to dispatch the Yankees in the ninth, working around a two-out single. That’s four saves in 31 pitches. Zero walks. I said zero walks. Take your time, Dale. Visit Valley Forge or something.
Childers backed up eight fine innings by Andy Sonnanstine, who is trying to pitch his way back into the Tampa rotation. I can’t even remember the last time a Bulls pitcher went eight innings (cursory investigation suggests that it was Jason Cromer’s start way back on June 17). Sonnanstine “scattered,” as they say, eight hits, and like Childers he allowed no walks, throwing 73 of 101 pitches for strikes. To take the Yankees’ side of the story, some hard-hit balls went right at fielders and “there weren’t a lot of opportunities,” but that all sounds like uncharitable ways of saying that Sonnanstine kept the Yankees’ bats from making sustained noise all night long.
Jeremy Hellickson, who pitched quite well in his Triple-A debut for the Bulls on Friday, goes for Durham tonight. Should be fun to see how he does against the likes of Shelley Duncan and company.