Matt Joyce
  • photo courtesy of Durham Bulls
  • Matt Joyce

DBAP/DURHAM—The start of last night’s game was delayed by a downpour of rain for exactly two hours and one minute. First pitch was at 7:06 PM, or one minute after the normal start time of most games at the DBAP. It was as if certain laws of the universe were re-asserting themselves, despite the Bulls’ attempt to defy them with their beloved 5:05 PM Sunday gametime.

And with order restored, the Bulls also re-asserted themselves after Gwinnett whomped them on Saturday, 11-4. They spotted the Braves a 4-0 lead in the top of the first, and then quickly stormed back to rout their divisional rivals, 13-6. A game the Bulls seemed headed to lose was all but decided—in their favor—by the end of the fourth inning, when they sent 10 men to the plate and scored six runs. Durham had 19 hits, including two triples—one by Desmond Jennings, who continues to surge (14-26 in his last six games —- UPDATE — AND WAS NAMED INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE WEEK THIS MORNING)—and a 5-5 night for Matt Joyce, who hit two of his three doubles to the opposite field. Durham scored in six of its eight turns at bat, and against all four Gwinnett pitchers. It was a thunderous performance by a team that is currently rumbling over the International League. On May 29, the underachieving Bulls were five games over .500. Barely two weeks later, they’re 14 over, and have a double-digit lead in the South Division.

You’d never know how bad they’re hurting.

Guess who would have come in to play infield yesterday had either second baseman J. J. Furmaniak or shortstop Angel Chavez been forced to leave the game? Actually, don’t bother, because the answer is Richard De Los Santos, the Bulls’ starting pitcher on Saturday (he took the loss). Charlie Montoyo even showed us De Los Santos’s name in the “Reserves” section of his lineup card. (Why De Los Santos, he was asked? “He’s got good hands.”) Elliot Johnson strained his quadriceps trying to beat out a grounder on Saturday and will probably miss two weeks, Montoyo said. Johnson injured his quad last year, too, although I don’t know if it’s the same one—he wasn’t around to ask him about it. A Bulls official mentioned that Johnson has also been battling a hip-flexor problem, so perhaps that led indirectly to the quad injury. No word yet on whether he’ll go on the disabled list, but he almost surely will.

For the next two nights in Gwinnett, where the Bulls continue this two-town, four-game series, the Bulls will have Tampa Bay Rays’ shortstop Jason Bartlett—although he’ll probably DH one of those nights. Bartlett is coming back from his own minor leg injury (hamstring) and needs two days in the minors to make sure everything’s properly healed. This is all very convenient, because the Rays happen to be headed for Atlanta to take on the Braves in an interleague battle. Bartlett can just drive an hour down to Turner Field when he’s done in Gwinnett—and Justin Ruggiano, who was called up as a stopgap (I’ll be surprised if he actually plays while he’s with the big-league club) should probably be prepared to drive the hour north.

Charlie Montoyo was hopeful that Joe Dillon, who has been sidelined since May 28 with a hamstring pluck, might return in about 10 days. The Bulls have an off-day after the Gwinnett trip, so that leaves about a week during which the team will be carrying only two players who have experience playing the middle infield positions. Ordinarily, you would expect a reinforcement from Class AA Montgomery or even Class A Port Charlotte, but both of those teams are leading close division races in leagues that play split-season schedules currently in their first-half home-stretches; the Rays would like to let the players on those teams see the races through to the end. The long and short of it is that Furmaniak and Chavez may have to play pretty much every day until Dillon’s return.

On the bright side, Matt Joyce told me that his elbow is feeling much better, and he expects to be fully recovered very soon and ready to play anywhere in the outfield. He’s been in left field, from where the throws are shorter, at the DBAP. Montoyo said that Joyce will probably play right field (his natural position) when the Bulls are in Gwinnett, where the outfield is basically uniform on both sides. It’s hard not to think that the Rays will be very tempted to recall Joyce once his arm is 100%, especially if he keeps having five-hit games. It can’t possibly be much longer that the efficiency-conscious Rays will go on carrying three catchers on their major-league roster.

Starting pitcher Jason Cromer missed the first six weeks of the season with elbow problems—they arose from pitching in the Venezuelan Winter League right after setting a career high for innings pitched in 2009. He returned to Durham on May 27 and made four relief appearances while regaining sufficient arm strength to rejoin the starting rotation. He wasn’t very effective—he allowed seven unintentional walks in just eight innings—and then was shut down again with more elbow problems. Cromer went down to the Rays’ training complex in Florida for more rehab (maybe he’ll hang out with another injured Bulls starter, Virgil Vasquez). It’s painful to think about this, but if Cromer, who is 29 and not a highly-regarded prospect, can’t come back reasonably soon from this injury, the Rays may see no alternative to letting him go. Cromer is a very nice guy who was an integral piece of the Bulls’ championship season in 2009, and here’s hoping he returns with guns (or at least his left arm) blazing.

And so the bullpen is down to six guys, only one of whom (Brian Baker) is accustomed to pitching more than two innings at a time. (Joe Bateman can do it, but he’s really not suited to it.) Baker pitched in garbage time on Saturday, which is why it was imperative that Carlos Hernandez give Charlie Montoyo some innings on Sunday.

It looked bad early. Perhaps the two-hour wait affected Hernandez’s rhythm, but he was pounded in the first inning. He “pitched for the cycle,” as the facetious saying goes, allowing two singles, a double, a triple and a homer and handing Gwinnett a 4-0 lead. Hernandez struggled early in his last start, too—although not to Sunday’s extent—but recovered to dominate for a few innings thereafter and go six one-hit innings for the win.

Sure enough, he rebounded, limiting the Braves to two hits over the next four innings. He was touched for a run in the fourth—more about how it scored a bit later—but left as the beneficiary of nine Bulls runs. That helped make up for some injustice, as Hernandez has received scant run support so far this season and could easily have a better record than his current 6-3 mark, which is still very good.

R. J. Swindle relieved Hernandez and allowed a solo home run to Luis Bolivar in two innings of work. Joe Bateman and Dale Thayer each tossed a perfect inning to complete the win. The Bulls are last in the league in saves. That’s not a surprise when your team leads the league in runs scored. Getting work in is fine enough, but I’m sure the Rays would like to see their Triple-A relievers challenged by more high-leverage situations.

And wouldn’t it be a kick to see the 30-year-old Bateman, who has never pitched in the majors, earn a callup to Tampa? He’s got a 1.29 ERA in a team-leading 35 relief innings this year.

Some oddities:

* I never thought I would find myself saying that I saw a team blow an easy triple-play chance, but the Bulls did that last night. Hernandez loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the fourth (he aggravated a two-on threat by unwisely trying to throw out the lead runner at third base on a sacrifice bunt—the throw was late). The next batter was Gwinnett catcher Clint Sammons, who would surely be the slowest runner on the team if not for Barbaro Canizares, who makes up in lethargy what he lacks in slowness. Sammons smacked a sharp grounder right to Bulls’ third baseman Dan Johnson. Johnson grabbed it and stepped on third—he was practically already standing on it—and then fired a strike to J. J. Furmaniak at second base for the second out. But Furmaniak bounced his relay throw to first base, and it was one of those unfortunate in-between hops that Ryan Shealy, who is a good scoop artist at first, couldn’t quite handle. The ball bounced out his glove, Sammons was safe and the crowd groaned. Joe Thurston scored on the play from third. Had Johnson decided just to get the lead runner, Thurston would have been out easily at the plate. But Johnson made the right choice to try; the triple play should have been turned.

* After Hernandez pitched for the cycle in the top of the first, Braves’ starter Jose Ortegano nearly did the same thing in the bottom of the inning. The first three Bulls’ hitters of the game went single-triple-double, and the next three were the Bulls’ three top home run hitters. But Dan Johnson, Shealy and Chris Richard all made outs. (Richard, by the way, was 0-5 with a pair of three-pitch strikeouts and two foul-outs to third base. He is 1-16 since homering on Wednesday, and on Sunday looked lost at the plate until getting pretty good wood on a flyout to center in his final at-bat.)

* Ryan Shealy’s busy night (2-4, three RBI) included a bases-clearing triple that capped the Bulls’s six-run fourth inning. According to the Bulls, it was Shealy’s first professional triple since—ready for this?—September 8, 2006. Shealy was with the Kansas City Royals, on the major-league squad. Asked about that triple after the game, he said he couldn’t remember it at all. Not only did Shealy end a very long drought (his teammates saved the ball for him), it was a stand-up triple. He hit a sinking liner to center field, just a little to the right of straightaway. It was hit so hard that the Braves’ Jordan Schafer, who was shaded toward left out of respect for Shealy’s pull-hitting tendencies, had to try to dive for what was by then a bouncing ball. He missed, and it rolled all the way to the wall. Shealy lumbered into third at a comfortable trot. Fernando Perez—who went 2-5 (would be nice to see him get going; he’s been in free-fall lately)—might have circled the bases on the play.

(Perez made a superb catch in the second inning. He misread a deep fly by Bolivar and then turned and reached full sprint speed, finally making an over the shoulder grab, arms all the way outstretched at waist height, like a supplicant. Tremendous.)

* Watching Joe Thurston try to hit R. J. Swindle’s 53-mph “curveball” was like watching a cartoon. First he appeared to try to lurch out of the way of the pitch as it butterflied (butterflew?) toward him. Then he thought about it while the ball continued its gyre-and-gimbling path to the plate, breaking towards the strike zone, and after reciting a stanza or two of “Jabberwocky” in his mind just to kill a little time, apparently decided to hit the ball. Thurston reared back to swing, then tried to adjust yet again as the ball took a white-rabbit hop down and in, and finally finished off his little dance by seeming simultaneously to hop again out of the way of the ball while flicking his bat down at it—his swing made him look like a borogove and produced a mimsy foul back to the screen. It was like watching Charlie Chaplin, or a Marx Brother, try to hit a pitch thrown by Bugs Bunny.

* The Bulls allowed two home runs last night. Both of them were hit by players who came into the game with zero.

* Don’t know who seasoned Vladimir Nunez’s pregame meal, nor what with, but the Gwinnett reliever was none too happy with Chris Ward’s strike zone in the fourth inning. He shouted complaints at Ward after walking Dan Johnson and then allowing Shealy’s triple; Braves’ manager Dav Brundage had to come out of the dugout and intercede. After the inning was over, Nunez came to home plate, got right up in Ward’s face and shouted at him some more. That brought Brundage back out. Nunez was lucky he wasn’t ejected—he probably should have been—but Brundage did the right thing by taking him out of the game after the 35-year-old Cuban veteran faced just five batters. That forced Jeff Lyman to throw 50 pitches over three innings, burning him up for probably the remainder of the series.

* With the rain delay, the official elapsed time of the game was 5:17. Unfortunately, I do not get paid by the hour.

* Everyone’s favorite ex-Bull, Jon Weber, signed with the Detroit Tigers and reported to their Triple-A farm team, the Toledo Mud Hens. Look at who’s been playing outfield for them and you’ll see why.

* Why is it that the Bulls had to get on a midnight train bus to Georgia, but the Gwinnet Braves got to sleep at their Durham hotel and fly home on Monday? Gee, you think that gives Gwinnett an advantage for Monday’s game? At least the Bulls have their best pitcher on the mound. Jeremy Hellickson is looking to rebound from one of his worst starts of the season. Oh, but he’s facing the Atlanta Brave hurler Jair Jurrjens, who is making a four-inning rehab start. It seems only fair that Jason Bartlett hit a home run off of him. Game time for the sleep-deprived Bulls, whose bus is somewhere around Charlotte as I write this, is at 7:05 PM.