DBAP/ DURHAM—This was one of those games that seemed like it was over early. In the third inning, down 1-0 on Juan Miranda’s second homer in as many nights (and hit to nearly the same place), five consecutive Bulls reached base against Scranton’s Kei Igawa before Igawa recorded an out. All five scored. No one scored again until the eighth, and in the mean time, the Bulls’ 5-1 lead seemed like 15-1.
That was because of Jeremy Hellickson (pictured). The young right-hander, who had beaten the Yankees at Scranton just over two weeks ago with six three-hit, shutout innings, was even better last night. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine him pitching much better against the Yankees’ sluggers. He allowed only two hits, both solo homers. He threw 108 pitches, 72 for strikes, and produced an eye-opening 21 swings-and-misses (11 of which came in his first 33 pitches). Nearly all of those whiffs were on Hellickson’s changeup, which the Yankees never came close to solving. The changeup was so good last night that Hellickson barely even bothered with his curveball, which he threw just a handful of times and which wasn’t very effective. Fastballs and changeups, fastballs and changeups. By the end of Hellickson’s outing, his excellent control had widened home plate umpire Derek Crabill’s strike zone, and the young Iowan was getting called strikes on anything close to the plate and around the knees.
When Hellickson departed, he received the loudest ovation I’ve heard for a player at the DBAP this year. “He earned it,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. And so he did. Reliever Jason Childers came on and nearly blew the game for Hellickson, but Dale Thayer gathered up the live wires Childers left dangling and snuffed them out. The Bulls won, 5-4.
Hellickson’s performance might have been even better had he come out of the game at the logical point. But Montoyo needed more from him, and it cost Hellickson a run—and almost cost the Bulls the game.
Meanwhile, a spaghetti junction of injuries, trades, demotions, slumps and collisions made this an especially busy night in the postgame clubhouse. Many loose ends to tie up, from the game itself and the extra-curricular surroundings. All of that follows. Length advisory.
There’s no truth to the rumor that Kei Igawa is Japanese for “second time through the order,” but you could be forgiven for thinking so. Nineteen of the 63 runs Igawa has allowed this year have scored in the third inning, which is usually right around the time that the opponent’s lineup turns over and they see Igawa a second time. The Bulls didn’t score in the first or second last night, but they saw 36 pitches. And in the third, Desmond Jennings led off by belting a homer over the Blue Monster, one of those shots that the left fielder doesn’t even turn to watch. It banged off the DPAC facade on the fly. Matt Joyce followed with another home run, to give the Bulls their first back-to-back experience since May. An error, a single, Jon Weber’s 43rd double, a groundout and another single, and you can just bring us the check please. Igawa was finished after four innings.
And as for Hellickson—who wasn’t available to speak with after the game, unfortunately; he was in the trainer’s room—he should have been done after seven clean innings. By that point, he had thrown 98 pitches, wasn’t laboring at all (he tossed an easy 1-2-3 seventh), and the Bulls were cruising. Jason Childers and Dale Thayer were rested and ready to go. Childers was in fact throwing in the bullpen in the seventh.
Surprisingly, though, Hellickson came out for the eighth, and John Rodriguez hit his third pitch over the right field wall for his 14th home run. Hellickson retired Reegie [sic] Corona on a pop-out, and Montoyo then called for Childers.
Why wait? Aha: Montoyo told us after the game that Carlos Hernandez, whose turn in the rotation comes on Sunday, will have to miss his start with a nagging injury (about which more below). It’ll be another tapas special out of the bullpen, just like in Hernandez’s last turn at Gwinnett earlier this week. So Montoyo was trying to rest his relievers in anticipation of Sunday’s game. In fact, he was hoping to need only Hellickson and Childers, he told us, but Childers frayed that rope of hope. Montoyo was forced yet again to manage with his strategic approach vitiated by non-game demands.
Childers looked good enough in closing out the eighth for Hellickson. He hit the first batter he faced with the first pitch he threw, but then got a strikeout and an inning-ending grounder. In the ninth, though, Childers fell apart. Austin Jackson singled for his first hit of the night (and avoided taking the collar). Eric Duncan struck out, and then Juan Miranda came up. Miranda is a Cuban defector who signed with the Yankees in 2006. The Bulls’ catcher, Michel Hernandez, who is also a Cuban defector, went out to the mound to talk to Childers. I wondered for a second if Hernandez was telling Childers how get Cubans out, but apparently he was asking Childers to go easy on his countryman. Childers walked Miranda on four pitches.
Yurendell de Caster then singled to right field, and the bases were loaded. Suddenly, the potential go-ahead run came to the plate in the person of John Rodriguez, who had—yep—homered off Hellickson just one inning earlier. Down in the bullpen, Dale Thayer leaped up and started to warm up. Quickly. Very quickly. Childers got ahead of Rodriguez, 1-2, but then Rodriguez lined a double down the right-field line. I was surprised that de Caster was held at third base. Matt Joyce is known to struggle with catching balls cleanly in right field—although he does have a strong arm—and de Caster was the tying run. The worst case scenario on that play is that de Caster is thrown out, Rodriguez is probably on third, and there are two outs.
But de Caster stopped at third, and Michel Hernandez got up again and went back to the mound. The entire infield joined in for a colloquy. The ump came out and broke it up after a few moments. Everyone slowly retreated to his position. Only then did pitching coach Xavier Hernandez emerge from the dugout, his head turned toward Thayer the whole way to the mound. All the infielders came back. Another conference. Ump returns to break it up again. Then Childers heads for the dugout.
Such are the mechanics of desperate pitching changes. It’s all about stalling. Not long ago, when the Syracuse Chiefs were in town, I watched Tim Foli give his catcher a visual sign to go “talk” to the pitcher while his replacement got warmer in the bullpen. Ninety seconds of that dilatory tactic, and Foli then popped out of the dugout to make his change.
Thayer replaces Childers. The infield comes in; the Bulls aren’t conceding the tying run. (“Either I win or I lose,” Montoyo said afterward; “I didn’t have any more pitchers.”) He almost gets Reegie Corona out with the first pitch he throws, when Corona pops one high and foul behind home plate. Michel Hernandez is ready for it, but it lands atop the netting just a few feet out of play. Corona fouls another one off down the left-field line, behind on Thayer’s fastball. He looks at a pitch high for ball one, then pops to Ray Olmedo and shortstop. Chris Stewart then grounds Thayer’s next pitch to Olmedo again. Game over. Everyone breathes.
If you just wanted the game story, you can stop reading. The remainder is an attempt to get all the strands of spaghetti up off the messy plate that is the current Durham Bulls.
First, a couple of notes about the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees: Shelley Duncan has missed the first two games of the series. I asked Scranton broadcaster Mike Vander Woude about that, and he told me that Duncan just has a mild back strain, which is fairly common for him. Duncan isn’t seriously hurt—he has taken batting practice the last couple of days—but he’s being rested as a precaution. He should see action against the Bulls on Sunday or Monday. I didn’t have time to ask Vander Woude why prized outfield prospect Austin Jackson was in right field instead of his customary center. Looking over Jackson’s season stats, though, I see that he’s now played right nine times. He’s also played a fair amount of left. The Rays move their minor-league outfielders around, too, so I wouldn’t read anything into Jackson’s relocation last night.
* Damaso Marte has been the subject of weirdness all year. He’s been out with arm problems for most of the season, but came back to rehab with Scranton and pitched against the Bulls on Friday night. His rehab assignment just ended, but Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that Marte’s velocity was still erratic and that he wasn’t ready to join the major-league club. Marte has made 11 appearances for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and allowed runs in only two of them (one of which was against the Bulls; Elliot Johnson and Matt Joyce homered off of him). His ERA is 2.45. His WHIP is a respectable 1.27 and he has nine strikeouts in 11 innings. The Yankees’ current left-handed, high-leverage reliever is Phil Coke, a longtime toiler in the minors who got a a chance this year when Marte went on the disabled list. Coke has a 4.88 ERA and five blown saves. Nonetheless, the Yankees just announced that Marte will not be joining the major-league team for what they’re calling “personal reasons.” Obviously, this is all to keep Marte off the roster, but why? Marte is earning $3.75 million this year. Adjusted for Yankee dollars, that’s $127.83.
Now onto the home team:
* Carlos Hernandez told me that he “aggravated” what he thinks is a tendon on the inner wrist of his pitching hand. Technically, to aggravate something is to make it worse, but I don’t know if Hernandez was referring to a previous injury, or if he just meant he’d hurt himself. He was pointing to the spot right where the wrist bends, where that cord (tendon?) that runs up the inner forearm is. Hernandez had a cortisone shot on Friday, and although he won’t pitch on Sunday, he hopes to make his start on Friday against Charlotte.
* Elliot Johnson has missed two games with a strained left quadriceps muscle. He injured it stealing second base in the first inning of the Bulls’ 9-5 win over Gwinnett on Thursday. In the ninth inning of that game, with the Bulls trailing 4-3, Johnson singled to lead off the inning. One out later, Henry Mateo tripled, and Johnson sprinted around the bases on his aching quad. Johnson told me that, had his leg been alright, he would have scored standing up. But because he was hobbled, he was slower than normal on the basepaths, and that’s why the throw home arrived just before Johnson did, which forced him to barrel into Gwinnett catcher Clint Sammons. Johnson knocked the ball loose and was safe with the tying run. But the dramatics would have been unnecessary without the earlier injury. Of such stuff are legends made. Johnson is day-to-day, but he doubted that he’d be ready to play on Sunday.
* Justin Ruggiano also missed his second straight game. He told me that “I hyperextended my elbow” in an outfield collision with Henry Mateo at Gwinnett (note to Bulls: Henry Mateo will get you injured!). Ruggiano expects to play on Sunday.
* I had a chance to speak with Akinori Iwamura via his translator. Iwamura understands English fairly well—I could see him taking my questions without confusion—but he isn’t as confident speaking it. He answered questions genially while sipping a Bud Light in front of his locker. He said that he feels “100%” healthy “for now”; he plans to play every day, either at second base or at DH (mostly the former). It all depends on how his knee feels, he said. When he discovered that the injury wasn’t as bad as originally supposed, Iwamura worked very hard to maintain his conditioning with the intent of playing again this year. Right now, his focus is to “get back to game shape.” Much of that has to do with finding his stroke and rhythm at the plate: that timing is easily fouled up by a long layoff. He said that on Friday he was hitting early in the count, but a check of the score sheet reveals that in fact he worked a pair full counts in three at-bats—he looked to me, though, like he was pulling off the ball. Saturday, as the designated hitter, his goal was to see more pitches, and he did: 21 in four at-bats (six in one, five in each of the other three). Iwamura went 2-4. He punched an opposite-field single to left in the first; reached on an error in the third (and his knee must have been fine—he hustled down the line and beat the throw after Reegie Corona bobbled Iwamura’s grounder to shortstop); hit a Blue Monster double in the fourth that would have been a long out in most parks; and struck out swinging in the seventh.
* Shawn Riggans came off the 7-day disabled list on Saturday. The Bulls now have four (!) catchers. Reliever Jeff Bennett is expected to join the team (Charlie Montoyo didn’t know exactly when), and that should push Craig Albernaz to the Hudson Valley end of the bench. That still leaves three catchers, which is unsupportable on a 25-man roster. Perhaps it will stay that way for a couple of weeks until rosters expand, but if it does, Montoyo’s in-game tactical managing will be badly hampered.
* Jason Childers has been struggling, allowing runs to score in each of his last five appearances. But he told me after the game that he has been watching film and thinks he’s found a problem in his delivery: he’s rotating back too far at the back of his windup, and as a consequence isn’t squaring to face the hitter properly, so his pitches aren’t breaking the way they should. If he can fix the problem, he’ll help the team greatly. Childers has a live arm, and he is as comfortable coming into a tight game in the ninth inning as he is making a spot start. He’s got the most useful blend of durability and flexibility in the bullpen.
* Speaking of struggling relievers, Dale Thayer was candid about his difficulties, although he said he’s been watching tons of film and hasn’t found a mechanical flaw. “There’s nothing really there; I just need to execute better.” (He also noted that he’d been the victim of an unusually large number of infield hits, which can throw a pitcher off and lead him into bad pitches.) Of the tight situation he bailed Childers out of on Saturday, he said: “This was real nice. It boosted my confidence. I’m hopefully back on track now.” Montoyo speculated, like Thayer did, that the efficiency and ease with which he earned last night’s very tough save would right Thayer’s season. Even more than Childers, a sound Thayer is essential to Montoyo’s team.
Talking to Childers and Thayer about their struggles reminded me that pitchers aren’t robots mindlessly throwing at catchers: they study game film carefully, they tinker with their mechanics when they’re having trouble, and the best of them think very carefully about what they’re doing when they’re out on the mound. For example, it was cool to see Jeremy Hellickson, who had basically avoided his curveball all night, throw two of them in a row in the seventh inning. They bounced in the dirt, but they made the Scranton hitters worry about Hellickson’s third pitch; the 75-mph breaking balls also lessened the strain on his arm as he neared 100 pitches.
* With Rhyne Hughes gone, recent major-leaguers Joe Dillon and Michel Hernandez and Akinori Iwamura in the lineup, and Elliot Johnson and Justin Ruggiano out of it, the Bulls looked like a radically different team last night—and a much older one. The average age of the nine position players was 30.2 years; subtract the outfield and it was 32.3. Matt Joyce batted second. For some reason, Dillon (34 years old) hit cleanup, which dropped Jon Weber (31, hit cleanup on Friday) to fifth and home run leader Chris Richard (35, seems like the natural cleanup hitter) to sixth. The bottom third of the order was apparently reserved for the Latino players: Michel Hernandez (31) seventh, Ray Olmedo (28) eighth, Henry Mateo (32) ninth.
* Weird to see no Rhyne Hughes in the clubhouse. (Not weird to Montoyo. I asked him if he was surprised that Hughes was the one dealt to Baltimore, and he looked at me as if to say, “Do you think anything surprises me?”) But it was only a matter of time until another trade was made—the last was the one that brought Joe Dillon in for Adam Kennedy, way back in early May. It was easy to get complacent and start feeling like everyone was safe from permanent departure to another club. The irony is that Dillon will back up Chris Richard, exactly what Hughes did when he came up from Montgomery. (Adam Kennedy, for his part, just went 5-5 for Oakland.) Originally called up to fill in for Richard when Richard injured his hamstring, Hughes hit his way into the everyday lineup and earned tenure in Durham. But perhaps the Rays sold high on him. He’s never before been anywhere near as good as he was in 56 games for Durham, and his K/BB ratio is alarmingly bad despite his recent hitting success. Nonetheless, he is a very personable guy who badly wants to succeed, and we wish him all the best as a Norfolk Tide—but not against the Bulls. He needs to strike out every time.
* Charlie Montoyo told us that Joe Bateman will probably start for the Bulls on Sunday, but he didn’t sound sure about that. Look also for Joe Nelson and Winston Abreu for a couple of innings each. Julio DePaula can probably give the Bulls an inning, and Dale Thayer only threw five pitches on Saturday, so he should be available, too. Montoyo also implied that Craig Albernaz will be the garbage-time guy if all hell breaks loose. He even joked that pitching coach Xavier Hernandez might thrown an inning. “It’s never easy, is it?” Montoyo was asked. His quick and frank response: “No.”
* In closing, something’s lingering on my mind from the brief chat I had with Matt Joyce after the game. Most of what he said was standard stuff, but toward the end of our conversation, he mentioned that he’s trying to hit more to the opposite field (Joyce is a dead-pull hitter; almost everything he hits goes to right or right-center). “It’s tough,” he said. “I was always taught growing up to pull the ball, pull the ball.” But doesn’t that encourage bad hitting mechanics? “It does, absolutely,” Joyce replied. So who taught him to swing for the right-field wall, then? “It was actually my Dad,” Joyce said.
We laughed, but it was a humanizing reminder, like the ones I got from Childers and Thayer that ballplayers aren’t robots, that they aren’t just products of instructional leagues and professional coaches either. Nearly all of these guys first started playing when they were little kids, and they got the very imperfect training little kids get: games against other little kids, practicing their swings and pitching motions in their bedrooms, and Dads. “My Dad was my coach for a long time,” Joyce said. “It worked out for him that when I pulled the ball I hit it a lot harder. So that’s what I did.” And although hitting to the opposite field is a good idea, doing what Joyce has been doing all these years has already gotten him to the majors. You have to learn how to become a complete player, but you have to be yourself, too. Tying up all your loose ends may make you the total package; in the long run, though, it’s the ones with a few flaws that we most prize.
Don’t forget that Sunday’s game starts at 5:05. See you there.