- Photo courtesy of Montgomery Advertiser
- Top Rays pitching prospect Matt Moore makes his Durham debut on Friday.
If it seems like the Durham Bulls haven’t played a home game in almost two weeks, that’s because the Bulls haven’t played a home game in almost two weeks. They headed into the All-Star break with two games at Norfolk, then resumed play on an eight-game swing to Pawtucket, where they split four games, and Rochester, where they’ve split the first two, losing 3-2, again, last night: all three of their northern-trip losses have been by that score. The Bulls trail both IL South Division leader Gwinnett and wild-card frontrunner Pawtucket by half a game in each race. In other words, they’re right in the thick of things. That’s quite remarkable in light of the sea changes that the roster has recently undergone. The guys who have worn the Bulls jersey—a wild and brady bunch of misfits, lifers, strivers and callups—have manned up and kept fighting, keeping this suddenly decimated team in contention.
The schedule for the 2011 season has made it very hard to keep up with the Bulls. They were on the road for much of April and May, seemed to be home-and-away in choppy fashion for most of June, and will have been mostly in absentia in July. The big homestand, the one where we finally get a long, close look at this team, starts this Friday, July 22. Beginning that night, the Bulls will play 18 of their next 21 games at the DBAP, and then we might start to get to know them. The thing is, the Bulls we’ll get to know aren’t the ones we were introduced to, however briefly, in the spring.
Detailing the changes after the jump—but first, a late-breaking update to those changes: The Rays have just re-signed Joe Bateman, the sidearming right-handed reliever who put up two very good seasons for the Bulls in 2009 and 2010, and sent him to Durham—actually, he’s already in Rochester, N.Y., where he’s available to pitch tonight.
Bateman signed with the Oakland A’s in the off-season and pitched so poorly for their Class AAA affiliate in Sacramento that he was finally demoted to Double-A Midland (Tex.). After four appearances there, Bateman was released. The Bulls, desperate for pitching because of the recent slew of injuries, callups, etc., were probably delighted to hear that the Rays had brought him back and assigned him to Durham. (Matt Torra, who starts for Durham at Rochester in about an hour, may also have been delighted: both pitchers hail from Pittsfield, Mass.) I’ll go out on a limb and speculate that Bateman’s veering slider, his best pitch, wasn’t breaking enough in the desert air of Sacramento (the Pacific Coast League is a notorious ERA-killer), but I’ll let him give me his thoughts when the Bulls return to the DBAP on Friday night.
That’s a game you’ll want to make sure you see. Keep reading to find out why…
What a difference a 16-inning game can make. On Sunday night, the Tampa Bay Rays lost, 1-0, to Boston, a nearly six-hour ordeal that saw the Rays burn through pretty much their entire pitching staff—the game was started by Alex Cobb, the Bulls’ ace starter, who is filling in for Wade Davis (forearm strain) until further notice.
The 16-inning game also cost the Rays Jose Lobaton, the Bulls’ platoon catcher for much of the last two seasons. Lobaton had been called up just days earlier when John Jaso went to the disabled list with an oblique injury. Lobaton followed Jaso to sick bay with a knee sprain. (He had one of those last year, as I recall.)
So the Rays called up Robinson Chirinos, the Bulls’ other platoon catcher. Chirinos started on Monday night and hit the very first pitch he saw in the majors, thrown by the Yankees’ A. J. Burnett, for a double. He later scored, and drew a walk in his second at-bat, but the Rays lost another one-run game, 5-4. The winning run was allowed by Alexander Torres, another emergency callup from Durham, who arrived at the Trop something like an hour before gametime and was really the only available pitcher left in the Tampa bullpen after Kyle Farnsworth let in the tying run in the eighth inning. In his big-league debut, Torres’s raw stuff looked electric, but he ran into his bugbear, walks—to be fair, the career starter was asked to come into a ninth-inning tie game in relief, and face some of the Yankees’ best hitters—and it cost him (and the Rays) the game. Tampa Bay is listing perilously close to also-ran status, having gone just 3-5 against their divisional betters, New York and Boston during a move-it-or-milk-it stretch in which they badly need to make up five or six games in the standings.
Torres was optioned back to Durham after the game, but the Rays needed more bullpen help, so Dane De La Rosa was called up for his first major-league tour. (He didn’t pitch last night. Jeremy Hellickson got the win with seven innings of two-run ball, and Jake McGee threw a scoreless eighth inning in yet another one-run game: a 3-2 final out of the Bulls’ scorebook, but on the right side of it. The Rays, by the way, are currently overrun with recent Bulls. When the Bulls are on the road, you can basically watch the Bulls you know and love by watching the Rays on TV: Justin Ruggiano, Elliot Johnson, Chirinos, etc. It’s kind of ridiculous.)
The Bulls, if I’m not mistaken, went into last night’s game with only 20 or 21 available players, and it’s something of a miracle they were in it at all toward the end (they had the tying run on third base in the ninth inning before succumbing to the Red Wings.) Andy Sonnanstine went six solid innings after a rocky opening frame; Brian Baker—usually a starter, basically throwing his bullpen session in a live game (more on his status below)—added a scoreless seventh, but Mike Ekstrom, who threw three heroic relief innings just two days prior, was touched for the game-winning run in the eighth. Catcher Craig Albernaz was warming in the bullpen late in the game. The Bulls had no one else available, having burned through relief arms of their own, just as the Rays had, over the past few days.
Well, help is on the way, and here is what you can expect (probably) when the Bulls return to the DBAP on Friday:
* Uber-prospect Matt Moore, who so dazzled the world in the Futures Game over the All-Star break that he was immediately anointed the best pitching prospect from sea to shining sea, has been promoted to Durham from Class AA Montgomery, where he had been dominant—he even threw a no-hitter there. Moore will start Friday night. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this. The blue-chip lefty throws nearly 100 mph, with life and motion on his pitches. He is the Main Event at the DBAP, 2011.
* Moore’s arrival moves Brian Baker to the bullpen—for the moment. I think. Don’t get to attached to that. It seems like every time Baker is transferred to the bullpen, he winds up starting immediately afterward. It’s like, just kidding there, people. All Bakers work with starter, anyway.
* With both Torres and Cobb working in Tampa this week, another starter is needed for the Bulls besides Moore. To that end: welcome Jim Paduch, just up from Montgomery, where he made nine appearances. The fun thing about Paduch’s stats page on milb.com is that there no stats on it whatsoever from 2007-2010—it just skips right past them and goes right from 2006 to 2011. That’s because Paduch spent four years in the Independent Leagues, playing in places like Gary, Indiana (for the Thouththore Railcatth), Chico, Calif. and, for all I know, Thingapore. He also appears to have worked as a coach for at least one stretch. Presumably, with Dane De La Rosa up in Tampa, the Rays felt obliged to send Durham another mysterious 28-year-old Indy-ball reclamation project plucked from west coast obscurity.
* Another reliever was still needed, so here comes Marquis Fleming, who turns 25 in about two months and has arresting numbers in Montgomery: 56 1/3 innings, just 37 hits allowed and 85 strikeouts (!). Also 27 walks, which is a lot. Fleming, 26, should be with the club tonight in Rochester.
* Desmond Jennings got his finger slightly fractured when it was hit by a pitch as he attempted to bunt shortly before the All-Star break. He’s off the disabled list but still only playing designated hitter, so outfielder John Matulia, another Biscuit, and like Fleming about to turn 25, has come up for the second time this month. In six games as a Bull to date, Matulia has three hits in 21 at-bats. With the trade deadline looming and the September 1 roster expansion not all that long after that, don’t be surprised if Matulia remains a Bull for the rest of the season. Should the Rays trade B. J. Upton (rumors abound), it’s fairly certain that Jennings or Brandon Guyer will be called up; if not, one or both Durham outfielders will almost surely go to Tampa on September 1.
* With Lobaton out for a couple of weeks and Chirinos up in Tampa (he started again on Tuesday night), Nevin Ashley is back in Durham after spending most of the year in Montgomery. Ashley came to Durham late last year and played admirably. His hitting was his career weakness, but he showed improvement this season with the bat. Ashley and Albernaz are your Bulls catchers until further notice—the same duo that manned (up) the position during last year’s playoffs.
* Adam Russell, acquired from San Diego last off-season in the Jason Bartlett trade, was all wore out in the 16-inning loss (which he was pinned with) and then designated for assignment, mainly to make room for a fresh bullpen arm. If Russell clears waivers, he’ll probably join the Durham relief corps. His numbers in Tampa were pretty decent.
* Going a bit further back, Matt Torra was acquired from Arizona (or was it Colorado?) a few weeks ago to pad the Bulls’ thinning starting rotation. He hasn’t been especially good since his move to the east coast—in fact, he has allowed 15 hits and eight runs in 8 1/3 innings—but these days Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo will take what he can get. Torra starts tonight in Rochester.
You got all that? Me neither. And anyway it’ll all change again soon enough—that’s the mutable beauty of Triple-A. My suggestion is that you come out to the DBAP on Friday, watch Matt Moore’s Triple-A debut, and start memorizing the new jersey numbers and all the new guys wearin’ ’em. And then buckle up for the pennant race with a new set of horses—or rather, Bulls. Seeya Friday.