Some late-breaking news first. Two significant additions to the Bulls’ roster: Desmond Jennings (pictured, right), who is one of the top prospects in the Rays’ organization, has been promoted to Durham from Double-A Montgomery. The 22-year-old Jennings was hitting .316 for the Biscuits with a .395 OBP and an .881 SLG. He had 25 doubles, eight triples, eight homers and 37 steals there, with 48 walks and 52 strikeouts. No word yet on a corresponding move off of the roster. One thing is almost certain, though: Jennings will make the Bulls better.
From the other direction, veteran reliever Joe Nelson has been demoted to Durham from Tampa. Nelson, 34, was acquired as a free agent during the off-season. He hasn’t been awful by any means, but he hasn’t been especially good either. The folks at DRaysBay are wondering if Nelson’s demotion means that Andy Sonnanstine will return to the major-league club. Makes sense to me: Sonnanstine has pitched well for Durham, and he probably has little left to prove in the minors. Nelson is sure to be the first guy recalled in the event of an injury. He, like Jennings, improves the Bulls.
All of those late moves overshadowed the Bulls’ 3-1 win at Scranton.
There was a bit of chatter here and there about how the Bulls’ trip to Scranton was a rematch of last year’s Governor’s Cup championship series, which Scranton won. There’s nothing wrong with a little harmless, minor-league hype, but it has to be said that most of the players on the two teams in 2009 weren’t Bulls or Yankees in 2008; and one who was a major contributor, Scranton’s Shelley Duncan (the current International League leader in home runs), was called up to the majors just before last night’s game. So this series wasn’t a “rematch” of much more than uniforms.
Still, these have been the two best teams in the International League for the last two seasons. What’s more, their parent clubs play in the same division, and one of them is the mega-market Yankees while the other is low-rent Tampa, who humbled the Bronx Bombers by winning the American League East division and playing in the World Series last year, reaching the October classic with a bunch of no-names, youngsters, and no-name youngsters.
There is also probably some lingering bad blood between Elliot Johnson and Francisco Cervelli. Johnson barreled into the Yankees’ catcher on a play at the plate during a 2008 Spring Training game and broke Cervelli’s hand, knocking him out of action for most of the season. I suppose Cervelli had the last laugh there, because Johnson broke his own thumb earlier this year and was out for about two months; meanwhile, Cervelli stepped into the Bronx limelight and shone after the Yanks’ Jose Molina went down with an injury.
So now that I’ve written all of that down, I wonder if my initial thesis—that there was no reason to think of this series as anything but four ordinary games, albeit between division-leaders—wasn’t exactly correct. In any case, the Bulls won three of the four games, getting good pitching in all of the victories.
It’s a truism: when you pitch well, you usually win. The Bulls pitched well last night. Carlos Hernandez, readjusting quickly to his 75-pitch diet, got through five innings under his allotment. He managed to strike out six Yankees with only 70 pitches, allowing a pair of walks to Colin Curtis but otherwise surrendering just two hits and one run. Reliever Calvin Medlock, well-rested after not pitching since Saturday, threw the game’s crucial innings, holding the Yankees scoreless in the sixth and seventh and thus building a sturdy bridge to the coda of the evening.
But the late-inning orchestra was out of tune. Joe Bateman was downright awful. In the bottom of the eighth inning, he fell behind Scranton’s No. 9 hitter, Doug Bernier, who was hitting less than .170, and then Bermier hit a leadoff single. Ramiro Pena lined out to fairly deep right for the first out, but Bateman lost control after that and walked the next two hitters, chucking six or seven straight balls at one point (overall, he threw just five of 17 pitches for strikes).
Charlie Montoyo had seen enough. He made a rare (for him) mid-inning pitching change, summoning Jason Childers (pictured, left) to deal with Bateman’s mess. Childers did the job beautifully, inducing a pop-up by Juan Miranda that Childers himself caught, calling off catcher John Jaso on the play. Then he got former Rays’ farmhand Yurendell DeCaster, who has one of the coolest names in baseball and had already singled twice in the game, to ground into an inning-ending forceout.
Childers made the ninth inning harder on himself, allowing a pair of singles to put runners on first and second with no outs. Childers then struck out Eric Duncan, a former first-round pick who has been a major bust and is now sputtering along in his fourth season at the AAA level. That pesky Doug Bernier then hit a liner of the end of the bat that looked like a run-scoring single; but he was robbed on a diving catch by Ray Sadler, who is filling in for Justin Ruggiano. (Ruggiano and his wife have a healthy baby boy, Brooks, who is well over eight pounds: Congrats, Roodges!) That was the break Childers needed; he got a groundout to end the game and record his fifth save in a week.
With 1 2/3 scoreless innings, Childers lowered his ERA to 3.92. The last time it was under 4.00 was May 1. Since June 19, Childers’s line:
24 1/3 innings pitched
2 runs (!)
1 earned run (!!)
6 walks (one intentional)
That’s a 0.37 ERA. Eighteen appearances, and no more than two consecutive days off except for the All-Star break. Childers isn’t going to maintain these ridiculous numbers—no one does, and anyway he’s got a lifetime 3.03 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP, which tells you that he’s benefited from plenty of luck on his current run, e.g. diving catches by Ray Sadler—but he’s the biggest reason why the Bulls have been winning close games lately despite Dale Thayer’s absence (and despite his presence: Thayer has allowed runs in three of his last four appearances). Childers is the first to admit that he doesn’t throw hard, but he’s a wily and intelligent pitcher, and it’s nice to see him enjoying a streak of great success at age 34, in his second tour of duty with the Bulls, for whom he also pitched in 2006.
Speaking of streaks of great success, maybe Elliot Johnson starts seeing red every time his opponents are wearing Yankees uniforms. Johnson was 8-17 in the series at Scranton with a pair of home runs (one from each side of the plate, both in the same game). Add his 3-4 performance against Norfolk just prior to the Scranton trip, and Johnson is 11-21 over his last five games with three homers. His average has rocketed up from .226 to .269. Fortunately for Francisco Cervelli, Johnson was not involved in any plays at the plate. He did, however, manage to tangle on the basepaths during the series, getting thrown out after outfield flies twice.
A few notes before I sign off, as the Bulls’ team bus chugs back home toward Durham:
* With a pop-out and a strikeout against Yankees’ lefty reliever Zachary Kroenke, Ray Sadler is now 3-63 this season against southpaws. He made that diving catch last night, and barely missed a homer early on when his long drive off of Anthony Claggett hit high off the wall and went for a double, but Sadler is just about useless unless a right-hander is pitching.
* The Bulls’ parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays, wound up making no trades before the waiver deadline despite rumors of the team’s interest in nearly every big-time player on the auction block. Unless the Rays swing a post-deadline deal, which is certainly possible, the team we’re seeing now should be pretty close to the one we’ll have through August. (n.b. I wrote that sentence before learning of the Jennings and Nelson transactions.) On September 1, though, major-league rosters expand to 40 players, and guys like Reid Brignac, Wade Davis, Matt Joyce and Dale Thayer could very well be called up.
* Fernando Perez is close to fully recovered from his Spring Training wrist injury, and it shouldn’t be long before he is sent on a rehab assignment. It isn’t out of the question that we’ll see him in Durham in August, or perhaps in early September as the season winds down.
* The Bulls just played 15 of their last 20 games on the road—and an astounding 26 of 36 (!). As Neil Solondz pointed out during last night’s broadcast, they emerged from that demanding stretch, during which they went 11-9, right where they started it: in first place. The Bulls are 15 games over .500, one shy of their season high. Twenty-four of their final 38 games will be played at the DBAP; that’s cause for optimism, because the Bulls’ 29-20 home record ties them with Norfolk for second-best in the league.
* The home stretch (literally) begins tonight with Jason Cromer on the mound against the Indianapolis Indians, who took three of four from the Bulls up north just over a week ago. Since then, they’ve lost their two best starting pitchers (Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny) to trades. In one of those trades, however, they picked up blue-chip prospect Jeff Clement, who, in his first game with the Indians, hit two home runs off of the pitcher I spent most of Monday night talking to. But Norfolk roared back from a 9-4 seventh-inning deficit and won, 10-9. The Indians should arrive in Durham in a very vengeful mood. I hope Jason Cromer is sleeping well on the bus home from Scranton.
See you at the DBAP—for the next eight games!