DBAP/DURHAM—-Before we get into what happened on Saturday, hey—-baseball’s back! I’ll have a season preview of your International League and Triple-A National Champion Durham Bulls in the April 14 print edition of the Triangle Offense mothership, the Independent Weekly. A few passing notes on the team will pop up in the description of yesterday’s sun- and celebrity-drenched afternoon fun.
There were 10,374 (VERY QUIET) people on hand—-a great step up from the last exhibition like this, in 2002, which drew, by Bulls’ General Manager Mike Birling’s estimate, only about 6,500 fans. Tampa only averages around 23,000 spectators per game in a metroplex of nearly 3,000,000 people, so this was a great turnout by any standards.
There were also tons of press folks at the ballpark for the event—-the first Bulls-vs.-Rays tilt at the DBAP since 2002—-and blow-by-blow accounts can be found all over the place, the best of which is probably here. (A shout-out to Rays’ beat-writer Marc Topkin, who was gracious and friendly and took the time to answer all kinds of questions about 11th-hour personnel moves.)The Rays beat the Bulls 9-6. Notes, observations and a few de facto Bulls preview bits after the jump.
Hey, did I mention that baseball’s back? I did? Is that not the best news of the year?
The slugfest on Saturday saw its heaviest blows delivered early. In the bottom of the first inning, Dan Johnson, a 2008 Bull who is about to return for a second tour of duty, took another 2008 (and ’07) Bull, Jeff Niemann, deep over the left-centerfield wall for a two-run homer. (Niemann, who didn’t look very sharp, was sanguine and humble about his rocky start after the game. He is, by the way, every bit of the six-foot-nine at which he’s listed.)
(n.b. The Bulls were the home team, but the Rays were introduced second. No doubting the main attraction here.)
Bulls’ starter Jeremy Hellickson, who is the Rays’ top pitching prospect, gave the lead right back, and then some. In the top of the second inning, the Silent Cyclone was tagged for six runs (only three earned) in a 55-pitch frame that saw him victimized by defensive misplays and the Blue Monster, whose proximity to home plate helped turn Kelly Shoppach’s high fly into a dink grand slam. It immediately brought to mind Bucky Dent’s (in)famous 1978 home run at Fenway, just over the Green Monster (the parent wall of the Bulls’ baby-blue junior version). Bulls’ left fielder Rashad Eldridge did a Carl Yastrzemski, first backpedaling a few paces in order to catch the ball, then adding a few more steps, then turning to field the carom off the Monster, then finally watching the ball plunk onto the concourse. Hellickson looked aggrieved—-for him, anyway, i.e. he blinked.
Hellickson’s struggles were a reminder of just how steep the rung is from Class AAA to the majors. He nailed the outside corner with a low fastball to Evan Longoria—-and Longoria laced an opposite-field double to right-centerfield. He hung a curveball to B. J. Upton and Upton spanked it to left field for a single. And so on. That isn’t to say that Hellickson isn’t major-league worthy—-he is, or will be—-but that you have to keep ratcheting up your game in order to stick in the bigs. Hellickson has his assignments for things to improve from the Rays’ staff (Rays’ manager Joe Maddon declined to get into specifics; “his breaking ball is the biggest thing,” was all he would say), and he’ll have to have success in order to push himself into the major-league rotation.
Hellickson will pitch for Durham in their opener at Norfolk on Thursday, April 8.
Tampa’s starters were (understandably) gone from the game by the end of the third inning, and the dugout was empty of Rays soon after. The team flew in Saturday morning and back out Saturday night. It makes perfect sense: You don’t want to risk injury in a game like this, and the team needs rest before it opens its season on Tuesday.
Nonetheless, Rays’ manager Joe Maddon praised his team after the game. “I’ll tell you what I liked: Carlos Pena beating out a ground ball to first base. Carl Crawford beating out a ground ball to first base.” (Also, Willy Aybar legged it out and scored on Matt Hall’s fifth-inning triple.” Maddon continued: “You get a major-league team in a situation like this [an exhibition versus their own farm team], they’re probably gonna come up, go through the motions, and leave. Our guys did not… The most impressive part about today for me is how our guys went about their business. I did not try to draw that out of them, and if they had not done it I would have been fine with it. But they did.”
Maddon, by the way, is a total delight to talk to: witty, intelligent, articulate, he’s the sort of guy you’d like to hang out with when he’s not game-managing or polishing and encasing gems of thought for the press. He has a loose, upbeat, expressive demeanor, unlike a lot of his peers, who come off either as costive, afflicted old men or as humorless, suspicious martinets. Last year, with the Rays spiraling toward a distant third-place in the AL East, Maddon dyed his white hair black and suggested that his team dress in all-plaid. The rumor is that he likes good wine. Hey, Joe, over here!
For his part, Bulls’ manager Charlie Montoyo was also in high spirits—-not least because his son Alex, who has undergone multiple surgeries for Ebstein’s Anomaly, was at the game, along with the whole Montoyo family. During the pregame, Montoyo was walking Alex along the first-base foul line, and cheers of “Alex! Alex!” went up in the stands. “I almost lost it,” Montoyo confessed.
Montoyo was glad that no one got hurt, which is the key to any exhibition game. When Reid Brignac—-who had just found out that he made the big-league club out of spring training—-was thrown out at home plate, he politely ran around the catcher, doing the right thing by not initiating a collision.
For his part, Brignac was very excited to have made the Rays, of course. He was called up a few times last year as an injury fill-in, but making the team out of spring training, “you feel like a big-leaguer,” he said. Brignac is a natural shortstop but will spend a lot of time at second base as part of a three-man middle-infield team that includes breakout stud Ben Zobrist and erstwhile Bull Sean Rodriguez. As if to prove his readiness at the Keystone Sack, Brignac made a couple of fine plays there in Saturday’s exhibition.
Speaking of Rodriguez, the Miami masher also made the team. He had a superb spring training, leading in the team in batting average (.460!), homers, doubles, hits and runs. Perhaps even more importantly, he told me that he approached the coaching staff about getting some innings in the outfield, where according to Maddon he played capably. Rodriguez hasn’t been an everyday outfielder since high school, but if he can play there he’ll make himself a very valuable player on a Rays team that emphasizes flexibility, diversity and utility. Rodriguez has a great gaming demeanor. Chi-Chi, as he is jokingly called in the clubhouse, is excited to play—-and especially excited about being a Ray, he said, not only because he’s from Florida but also because he loves the team (he said they have the best starting rotation in baseball)—-and could easily develop into a 20+ homer righty bat for Maddon. With Carl Crawford’s days in Tampa perhaps numbered (he’s due for a big payday after 2010), it isn’t a stretch to envision Rodriguez in a platoon, eventually, with Matt Joyce, the lefty slugger who might have made the Rays’ roster had he not struggled with minor injuries in camp.
Given Rodriguez’s torrid spring training performance, it was all the more impressive to hear Joe Maddon say that Justin Ruggiano “probably played better than anybody in spring training.” Ruggiano, who batted .447, has been assigned to Durham again—-“just no room for him” in Tampa, Maddon explained—-but Maddon and Montoyo both expressed great admiration for Ruggiano’s change in approach (especially with two strikes, Maddon said). If Ruggiano keeps it up, he’ll soon wind up in Tampa or traded to another team in need of a solid outfielder. It’ll be interesting to see whether Ruggiano can improve against lefties; he has reverse splits, and hits righties much better. It was hard not to imagine that he was dying to his a grand slam on Saturday, when he came up in the seventh inning with the bases F.O.B. and the Bulls down four runs, 9-5. He had a strong at-bat, pushing frontline Rays’ reliever Grant Balfour to a full count; but his well-struck ball to right field was caught near the warning track for a sacrifice fly. That was the ballgame, really.
Afterwards, yellow tape cordoned off a path to the bus for all of the players, and fans lined the walkway to get autographs. Given that most fans can’t distinguish the minor-league players from the major leaguers, it was no surprise to see Rayner Oliveros, who looks like a ballplayer, get asked for so many autographs.
Reaction to fun, mostly-froth interview with Evan Longoria: He may the world’s happiest man.
Couple of other quick notes, pretty much all of them injury-related:
* Desmond Jennings is recovering from a wrist injury and will not be activated in time for the start of the season at Norfolk on Thursday, April 8. No word yet on his return.
* Pitchers down include reliever R. J. Swindle, who was sort-of acquired last year by the Rays, then unacquired, then signed again in the offseason. Swindle has an injury to his oblique. Swindle, oblique…hmmm… Also injured is lefty starter Jason Cromer, who apparently came into camp with what Montoyo called an “elbow bruise.” Cromer had pitched in Mexico in the off-season and perhaps sustained the injury there. He won’t be ready for at least another month, which makes one worry about whether the problem might be more serious than a bruise.
* Shortstop J. J. Furmaniak, signed in the off-season to stop the shortstop gap left by Brignac’s departure to the majors and Elliott Johnson’s out-of-options status coming into camp, has done something bad to his heel and is out at least a month. Fortunately, Johnson was designated for assignment, cleared waivers, and accepted an assignment to Durham. He owns a home and lives in Raleigh, so he’s probably not terribly unhappy about the transaction. Look for him at shortstop a lot, with newly-signed Angel Chavez spending some time there as well. Chavez doesn’t look to have the body to play too much there, but he started the exhibition at short on Saturday.
* Nothing is final yet, but Hank Blalock may wind up in Durham. Blalock, a two-time All-Star with the Texas Rangers who has 152 career major-league home runs, was signed by the Rays in the off-season. His contract contains an opt-out clause that allowed him to become a free agent at the end of spring training if he didn’t make the big-league squad; he didn’t (Brignac got the last spot), and a few days ago, Blalock said that “I don’t have any plans on playing minor-league baseball this year. At this time in my life, if there’s no major-league opportunities for me then I’ll find something else to do.” (Blalock is 29 years old: he would actually be only the ninth-oldest Bull, by my count, if he were on the team.) But then he apparently had a change of heart, or was otherwise persuaded to reconsider. According to Montoyo and others at the ballpark, Blalock could still take the minor-league assignment and come to Durham. That would give Montoyo four 1B/DH types to maneuver in and out of the lineups: Blalock, Dan Johnson, Chris Richard and Ryan Shealy. Montoyo just smiled and shrugged at that possibility: He’s used to it.
* The closer-note belongs, of course, to Winston Abreu. Abreu’s season was cut just short during last year’s championship playoff series with the Yankees: after leaving the clinching game with an apparent blood blister, he was discovered to have had an aneurysm. Although Abreu has since recovered, his strength is still lagging behind. (For what it’s worth, his velocity appeared to be down a bit on the DBAP radar-gun readouts.) Charlie Montoyo said that he probably wouldn’t have Abreu close games for a bit until the pitcher is all the way back to form.
My colleague Mike Potter will be covering most of the games for Triangle Offense this year, but I’ll be around for about a third of the home games. Frankly, I can’t wait. The home opener is April 15 against division-rival Norfolk. Two 2009 Bulls will be on the Tides’ squad: Michel Hernandez and Rhyne Hughes. I trust you already have your tickets.